by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 22
November 2022
Idea
10:05

A Trump-less Twitter bodes ill for the West

The former president's choice not to return to the platform is bad for democracy
by Mary Harrington
Credit: Getty

Elon Musk has unbanned Donald Trump. What does this portend? So far not much, at least not for connoisseurs of Trumpian posting spectacle: since his Twitter reinstatement, and despite Musk’s baiting, the former president has maintained an uncharacteristically dignified silence. But the response, and public reaction, does tell us something about a wider trend in online discourse that bodes ill for the Western political settlement. 

When Trump was banned, many world leaders protested, concerned over what this move implied about the power of Big Tech. The subsequent argument about how to respond to this power has tended to fall into two interconnected parts. Firstly, what to do about the fact that social media concentrates an enormous amount of power in a very small number of hands? And secondly, what to do about the fact that the political consensus among this relatively small group of individuals skews heavily progressive?

Progressive postliberals — that subset of the elite for whom authoritarian measures are fine as long as they’re ordered to woke ideals — by and large shrugged at this dilemma, because they seemed to be winning. Who cares if censorship is now overt, as long as our people have the keys to the censorship machine? 

This situation forms the backdrop to much of the howling since Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, which has for some years now been a key crucible for elite opinion-formation. While it would be a mistake for the Right to imagine that Elon Musk is ‘on their side’, it’s been clear since he marched into Twitter’s headquarters holding a sink that he is not on the progressive postliberal ‘side’ either. 

Far from it: Musk has taken direct aim at the consolidated cultural power of progressive postliberals on Twitter, first by undermining the cultural cachet of the ‘blue tick’, then by sacking many of the Twitter employees tasked with policing discourse on the platform. Of course, this group’s overall political sympathies were, in aggregate, clear to everyone. 

But this ideological de-fanging may not succeed in restoring the platform as a public square. For if Musk is directing his considerable resources at forcing it back toward some kind of neutrality, it’s far from clear that people even want a neutral public square any more. 

Trump has snubbed Twitter, stating elsewhere that he didn’t ‘see any reason’ for returning. He seemingly prefers to remain on Truth Social, the network he created after being de-platformed and which, with an estimated two million active users, serves as his personal echo chamber and megaphone. And if Trump has built his own echo chamber, those progressive postliberals most incensed about their loss of institutional dominance on Twitter have also begun loudly constructing their own. Wherever they go, as far as they’re concerned, that’s where the party is. 

To date, the platform of choice has been Mastodon, and early indications are that this departure is experiencing some teething troubles. But whether or not their attempt at moving the party elsewhere succeeds, the larger trend is toward proliferating political extremisms, each with their own congenial platform and set of norms. This trend bodes ill for democracy. 

As a political form, democracy rests on collective acceptance that everyone voting belongs to the same political community, and as such the ‘losing’ side is willing to abide by the overall result. What happens when very large subsets of the electorate are accustomed to viewing as ‘their people’ only those circumscribed by the norms of Truth Social — or Mastodon, or wherever? 

In that context, it may become increasingly difficult to see what, in cultural terms, holds the larger polity together and enables losers’ consent to endure. At that point, only those electorates still bound together by hyper-local interests and commonalities will be able to convene enough solidarity across the political aisle to tolerate ‘losing’ in a general vote. Should this continue, at the larger scale we may see ‘election deniers’ go from the shocking political exception to the grim political norm.

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Andrew D
Andrew D
9 days ago

The public square that is UnHerd is enough for me. I think democracy should be able to survive whatever happens to Twitter, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t deserve to.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
9 days ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes, we did manage before twitter.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
8 days ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I think MH has run out of steam and is desperate to find a big cause where there is none.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
8 days ago
Reply to  Guy Pigache

Huh? Huh?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
8 days ago

“Election denier” is as perverse a pejorative as “climate denier”. No one denies climate exists. No one denies elections exist. Disagreeing on the levels of honesty involved in issues surrounding them is not denial. Like the nonexistent but still referenced “don’t say gay” bill, these deviant abuses of language get worse when good writers like Mary lend them legitimacy, scare quotes or no.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 days ago

Well said. But the left dictates what false narratives become adopted as truth on the various leftist platforms. Same for the right.
Mary is correct. When each side has their own outlets, what’s the use of debate anymore? We have devolved into our own little worlds of truth. Social media is at the heart of the problem. There is no more civil discussion about anything. Revolution is the only answer, therefore.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
8 days ago

The whole final paragraph is poor English and weak thinking

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
8 days ago

Did you not notice the quote marks around ‘election denier’?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
9 days ago

Yes indeed.
And you can add “referendum deniers” to “election deniers”.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 days ago

The greatest of which are the ERG, who interpret a skin-of-the-teeth win as a full mandate for their particular form of Brexit.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan
8 days ago

You are absolutely right: 20 years online has proven that people, by and large, do not want free and open forums, and will punish those who do. I’ve seen this first hand as a moderator on a fairly active forum myself.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 days ago

Ms. Harrington is describing the situation that existed before Musk’s purchase of Twitter, with an important twist. The progressives ruled Twitter but the other side, with nothing comparable, were left out in the cold. And so without a way to engage with each other both sides tumbled into conspiracy theories and silly name-calling.
So we should all hope that Truth Social is successful.
As for Trump, he’ll jump back on Twitter when it suits him. But, with a bit of luck, his star is already dimming. Convincing him of that will take some time.

Corey o,Connor
Corey o,Connor
8 days ago

It is because he has his own platform and I am sure he has investors and he probably wants to keep at it bc if he wins truth social WILL grow massively. And if he doesn’t win he probably will join Twitter again then as I am sure he will want his daughter or sons to run. So he will want to stay in the public discourse but for time being I am sure he wants to stay loyal to his new business. Plus I am sure he enjoys the fact they lost 50% of their value since he left. Owners of Facebook lost personally over 100 billion from banning him. Facebook isn’t even a major company anymore in us.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 days ago

Things are unfolding as planned.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
8 days ago

The large polity was destroyed in 2016 when Remainiacs and Anti-Trumpers refused to accept the results of free and fair elections. These are the people who burned democracy to the ground. We are 6 years on and have only just started to sift through the ruins.

Lindsay H
Lindsay H
3 days ago

There are rumors that Apple and Google (owners of app platforms) are planning to delist and exile Twitter in much the same way that Parler was exiled. (Apple, worth noting, has recently deleted all of their tweets from the platform.)

Meanwhile, Dorsey and Musk have both mused about developing an ‘alternate’ internet-based OS on a Tesla-type phone. The Bitcoin crowd, including the likes of Michael Saylor, could easily underwrite that, thereby creating a ‘Renegade’ silo.

Presently, Twitter is bleeding buckets. High-profile advertisers have decamped. In light of the bogus impersonation of pharmacutical giant Elli Lilly, other corporations have paused further advertising. (A ‘blue-checked’ imposter tweeted that insulin was now free. Stock values plunged.) Musk’s subscription plan cannot make-up the shortfall. Sure, as head influencer, he now has 119+ million personal followers and will convert many. Even so, $44 billion was a lot to pay for a ‘mailing list’. He’s basically carrying a corpse.

The silo phenomenon MH mentioned is inevitable. Journalists and informants will continue to hop walls to observe and get quotes from powerful adversaries. (Coincidentally, presidential hopeful, Kanye West, aka Ye, just bought Parler.)

The neo-liberal and globalist agenda is splintering and re-aligning into feudal-like fiefdoms under rich, strong-armed and loud-mouthed ‘social-media’ influencers and wannabe-rulers.

… And we, the screen-addicted, continue to follow …

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
8 days ago

Strange how the author chooses not to mention the absolute dumpster fire that Musk has turned Twitter into in these short few weeks. His $44BN is probably worth pretty close to zero now and when he gets snubbed by a doofus like Trump then the bells are tolling at Twitter.
I hope “owning the libs” was worth it, Elon…

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
8 days ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Twitter is a dumpster fire? For all the hullabaloo and hand wringing about employee departures, I’ve noticed very little difference in performance, and the usual suspects still participating. Rumours of its death appear, so far, greatly exaggerated.