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Artillery Row

The time is right for fightin’ in the tweets

Trump’s response to Twitter – as to the riots – tells floating voters he is on their side

Summer’s here and the time is right for fightin’ in the tweets. As rioting migrates from one American city to another in a parody of an epidemic, the intolerable reality leads to the tolerably unreal, the physical facts of racial inequality and police violence to the moral theatre of social media. The poor lose twice over, first in the real world and again as self-appointed activists explain their motivations for political ends. The rich win twice over, first when college-educated whites arrive in mostly non-white urban neighbourhoods to smash banks and stores and fight the police, and again as they compete for the spoils on social-media.

So completely have our politics migrated to digital media that the most significant consequences of these riots are likely to occur only there. And who would stake their career on the alternative, repairing the social fabric at a time when America’s rich and poor are more distant from each other in wealth and geography than ever before?

As a rioting city is put under curfew, so Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has put the President on the naughty step. Twitter is a site on which lies, racist incitement, fake news, foreign bots and pornography are inescapable. That’s why it’s market value is about $30 billion: Twitter gives the people what they want, which is to roll in their own filth. Trump gives the people what they want too: someone to say the unsayable, someone to hate for saying it.

One of the unsayable truths that Trump has said is that the social media titans are bad for democracy. Let’s face it, Trump should know. He has harvested real-world followers and votes with the same taboo-breaking, truth-bending tricks that have brought real-world money and political influence to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. He couldn’t have won the 2016 election without inciting his followers on Twitter and Facebook. The impeccably liberal proprietors of Silicon Valley know this, and they clearly have no intention of allowing him to game their system in November.

On Tuesday, Twitter flagged a Trump tweet describing mail-in ballots as vulnerable to fraud. “Our election process will become badly tainted & a laughingstock all over the World,” Trump said. Twitter tagged this as containing “potentially misleading information about voting processes”. It’s hard to see what was misleading here. Even the Associated Press fact-check on Twitter’s fact-check admitted that “certain pockets of the country have seen their share of absentee-ballot scandals”. The more mail-in ballots – and, inevitably, the more online voting – the greater the likelihood of fraud and failure, as in the non-working app that make a “laughingstock” of American democracy in the Democrats’ Iowa caucuses earlier this year.

Twitter’s users skew towards the white, wealthy and college-educated – the Democrats. For days before Dorsey fact-checked Trump, the Twitter-left had been complaining that the site was allowing Trump to promulgate the conspiracy theory that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough was a murderer. In 2001, when Scarborough was a Republican congressman, an aide collapsed and died in his office from an undiagnosed heart problem. Since then, Scarborough and his wife, Mika Brzezinski, have attacked Trump on their programme and he has feuded with them on Twitter. That Scarborough was once a politician and Brzezinski is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, and that both of them are now reality-television turns, shows how sharply and steeply the American upper class has redirected its energies from stewardship to celebrity.

Trump surprised everyone by taking to the high ground. The social media companies claim they cannot be held responsible for the tide of filth that they have unleashed: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996) defines them as pipelines, not publishers. This might have been true in 1996, but it isn’t true now. The social media monopolists know it too. Facebook insists it’s only a telecommunications provider, like AT&T, but it has argued in court that it is a publisher. The Executive Order that Trump issued on Thursday, 28 May, is a model of liberal good sense, delivered from the real world, so it’s almost certain that he didn’t write it:

“The growth of online platforms in recent years raises important questions about applying the ideals of the First Amendment to modern communications technology. Today, many Americans follow the news, stay in touch with friends and family, and share their views on current events through social media and other online platforms.  As a result, these platforms function in many ways as a 21st century equivalent of the public square.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.

As President, I have made clear my commitment to free and open debate on the internet. Such debate is just as important online as it is in our universities, our town halls, and our homes.  It is essential to sustaining our democracy.

Online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse.”

This, and not the dignity of an Oval Office whose previous adornments include Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, is why Jack Dorsey selected Trump for “fact-checking”. It’s all true, and it’s all intolerably true for the social media companies. So Twitter did it again on 29 May. This time Twitter, the site on which Ayatollah Khamenei and a rich variety of fruitcakes call for murder without interference from Jack Dorsey’s minions, accused the President of “glorifying violence” for a tweet in which Trump threatened to call out the National Guard because the incompetent state and local authorities in Minnesota wouldn’t. Trump’s quotation from George Wallace, the segregationist candidate from 1968, was in poor taste – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – but it’s hard to see how this tweet, like most of Trump’s tweets, glorified anything but the tweeter.

Trump’s response to the real-world riots tells fearful voters that he is on their side, not the side of political correctness and corporatism.

George Wallace was an outright racist who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1964 and 1972 and, finding the Democrats insufficiently congenial to his kind of bigotry, was running for the American Independence Party when he made that quip in 1968. He took it from George Headley, the Miami police chief, who said it in 1967 while accusing rioters of being “young hoodlums, from 15 to 21, who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign”. Not unlike the white rioters who ran amok in cities across America on Saturday night.

Out there in the real world, the revolution is eating its own. For the last three years, CNN, like most American media, has lauded Black Lives Matter, applauded street violence in the name of Never-Trumping, and depicted Trump as the second coming of people like George Wallace – rather, say, than Joe Biden, who has admitted being pals with the Democratic segregationists when he entered Congress. On Friday night, a mob smashed up the lobby of CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta.

It may be too early to draw conclusions: the riots have yet to stop. But that in itself allows a conclusion to be drawn. November’s election, like every other, will be decided by the floating voters, the white, middle-class suburbanites who have fled from the cost, disorder and danger of Democrat-run cities. On Saturday night, twenty-five cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, were under curfew. Almost all of them are run by the Democrats, and many have been run by the Democrats for decades. Trump’s response to the real-world riots – calls for order, the National Guard and banning Antifa as a terrorist organisation – tells fearful voters that he is on their side, not the side of political correctness and corporatism. The President who was supposed to be above the law now has the best chance to run on law and order than any candidate since Richard Nixon after the riots of 1968.

The same goes for his Executive Order calling the social media companies to responsibility. They have profited by flooding the phones of the voters’ children with lies, racism and filth. As America’s cities go up in smoke, the social media companies continue to profit by serving as platforms for the organisation of mayhem and the spread of incitement. Trump has named them, and named the corruption that has allowed them to hide behind Section 230. In America this is a season of violent retribution and mob anger, in the real world as in the one that really counts. The people will be given what they want.

Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of The Spectator (US)

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