There’s a quote in an article in the Atlantic from a senior campaign official for President Trump that seems as though it encapsulates this phase of the Trump presidency as surely as “seriously but not literally” served to describe Trump’s assent.
“The fight is more important than the resolution,” the official told reporter Elaina Plott.
It was a comment tailored to a specific issue, Trump’s trade fight with China. But it serves as a broader explanation for Trump’s approach to a wide range of things. He’ll kick up dust in a way that prompts applause from his base, even if nothing else ever happens.
Polling reflects this. For two years in a row, Trump supporters have told Pew Research Center that they like Trump because of his approach and personality more than his policies and values. In fact, last year, three times as many supporters picked approach over policy. Trump’s base likes to see him fight and Trump likes to fight. The outcome of those tussles — against the elites, against “the swamp” and, more than anything, against the liberal left — is often secondary.
Why? At a Trump rally in Pennsylvania last year, one attendee explained the idea succinctly: “You feel like he’s fighting for you.”
This is probably the appropriate lens through which to view Trump’s recent war on social media networks.
It’s hard to say with certainty why Trump’s focused on what he (and his son Donald Trump Jr.) claim is a rampant effort by Facebook and Twitter to muffle or silence conservative voices. Part of that belief stems from anecdotes about content being censored or accounts being suspended.
Trump Jr.’s jeremiad gained steam after a photo he’d posted to Instagram was removed this year. In recent weeks, Trump has called out the companies for blocking “Conservative thinkers” like the actor James Woods (whose suspension from Twitter was temporary) and Paul Watson. Watson works for Alex Jones’s Infowars, and examples of his output include spending the weekend before the 2016 election speculating, based on WikiLeaks document dumps, that Hillary Clinton participated in secret cannibal dinner parties.
After his photo was banned, Trump Jr. began collecting other stories of people facing discrimination at the hands of social media companies. This week, the White House weaponized this idea, adding a form to the official White House website asking people to share their stories if they “faced political bias online.” Those choosing to fill out the form are asked for examples of biased behavior on the part of social-media companies — once they assure the White House that they are U.S. citizens, of course.
Why that proviso? Beyond Trump’s fixation on U.S. citizens vs. residents, it probably stems from the ostensible rationale for the data collection, trumpeted on the first screen of the form.
“SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” it reads. “Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.” We could take issue with the characterization of “too many” — what’s the appropriate number? — but we’ll instead focus on that initial claim. Twitter and Facebook are under no obligation to allow anyone to say anything, of course, a nuance which Trump’s form glosses over by ascribing to them that free-speech ideal. Perhaps the citizenship question, then, is meant to allow the White House to argue that citizens’ First Amendment rights are being infringed — which, of course, they aren’t, since Facebook and Twitter aren’t the government.
The emergence of this form overlapped with another free-speech move by the Trump administration. In the wake of the massacre of Muslim worshipers at mosques in New Zealand, the U.S. declined to endorse a nonbinding statement targeting online extremism. Eighteen other countries joined Facebook, Twitter and Google in endorsing the statement. The administration cited free speech concerns as a rationale for declining to participate.
It’s hard not to recognize the other common thread here. Some portion of those blocked on social media, including Watson, have used their accounts to espouse extremist ideas. Last April, a Twitter employee told Vice that one challenge in cracking down on white supremacy on the platform was that some right-wing or Republican political figures would also be affected, amplifying the existing firestorm.
Tech companies argue — convincingly — that bans and suspensions stem from user activity, not ideology. When conservatives began to complain of being “shadowbanned” last year — a reference to having certain accounts excluded from search results — we noted that many of those who had been affected had probably exhibited behavior that was targeted by Twitter in an effort to reduce abuse.
There’s been no evidence presented of a broad effort to target conservatives or Republicans on these platforms. It’s hard to see how collecting anecdotes through that White House form will prove any such conspiracy, any more than the administration’s effort to collect stories about crimes committed by immigrants is a robust effort to prove Trump’s case about the dangers of new arrivals to the country.
Again, though: Why is this of such concern to Trump, anyway? It’s certainly possible, if not likely, that Trump actually believes that conservatives are being targeted on social media networks. There’s little question that many Trump supporters on social media believe that conservatives are being targeted. (Ever see a Twitter account with a red “X” in the username? That’s meant as a symbol of opposition to “shadowbanning.”) That’s probably in part because, as with any technology, sometimes weird things happen that are easily and incorrectly attributed to intentionality. It’s also in part, no doubt, because Trump, Trump Jr. and conservative media outlets argue that it’s happening.
“You feel like he’s fighting for you.” The fight is the important thing, not the result.
Well, that’s not entirely true. If the result is that Facebook and Twitter are reticent to crack down on abusive behavior that happens to come from Trump supporters, that’s certainly a success for the president. It’s the old “working the refs” theory of media manipulation: Ensure that media gatekeepers are hyperaware of public concerns about seeming too liberal and they’re more likely to make decisions that favor conservatives. It’s a tried and true tactic and one that, if Vice’s source is correct, has been effective in tying Twitter’s hands.
That bit of strategy aside, social media companies are the perfect opponent for one of Trump’s endless culture wars against Eastasia. Most people are on at least one social network or have used Google. Trump relishes the idea of doing battle against California-based (read: liberal) tech companies run by rich people (read: elites) who seem to be targeting his base.
And in this case, the result of the fight — changing company behavior — has already to some extent been achieved.