How humans connect is determined by the prevailing mediums of their era. In the political sphere, beginning in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt leveraged public radio for his “fireside chats.” Later, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama drew on the visual charm of TV, where they excelled as gifted orators. Not all presidents are as adept at using the tools afforded to them, but there are certain political figures who understand the rhythms of the time they inhabit better than others.
That includes Donald Trump. He was made from TV and thus the ideal avatar for an internet populace that feeds on the unpredictable theatrics of its public figures. With the guile of an arrogant conman, he played to an increasingly-fractured nation using social media. Trump took a distinct liking to Twitter, where he adopted the rhetorical flair of a WWE brawler. He wasn’t just the reality TV president; it was that he lived somewhere beyond actual reality. Online, he was seemingly omnipresent: in meme form and GIFs, hectoring in soundbites, mocked on Saturday Night Live. In time, it began to feel like Trump was the only fixed point around which all of us orbited, even as many tried to avoid his dangerous pull.
Ultimately, Trump’s tweets became the currency of the national conversation, the mold it would need to fill. His genre was no-holds-barred shock. He was a shameless bully and a paragon of casual bigotry in the media. None of which makes the fact of the matter any less true: for the entirety of his tenure in the White House, @realDonaldTrump was the center of the social media universe. Whole days were bound to his erratic persona, petty grievances, and big boy tantrums. His Twitter account became the single most influential particle of social media of the last five years, a bit of unpredictability that came to be relied upon even as it took a mental toll.
Whether you agreed with Trump’s strongman style of statecraft never mattered, because the appeal, for disciples and critics alike, was always there. “Traditional media needs conflict, sensationalism, and drama to keep up their ratings, and Trump provided that,” says Magdalena Wojcieszak, a communications professor at UC Davis. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s tweets fueled cable news coverage, resulting in disproportionately more airtime (what amounted to $2 billion of free media). “And that continued through his presidency,” Wojcieszak says.
That was, until January 8, when Twitter “permanently suspended” him from the platform following the insurrection in DC, where a pro-Trump mob pillaged the halls of the Capitol Building just as members of Congress were voting to certify Joe Biden’s election win.
To explain its decision, Twitter cited two tweets in particular—neither rank among Trump’s worst, mind you—saying they were “likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place.” Other tech companies followed suit, taking collective action to cut loose the very cables that had maintained Trump’s center of power for so long. “We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. The decision to lift Trump’s suspension will be made by Facebook’s oversight board. But by unilaterally stripping Trump of his account, the move also illustrated just how influential tech companies can be when they want to muzzle public discourse.
The bans, long overdue, had the effect of a tranquilizer; suddenly, timelines felt a little less deranged. On Twitter and in other corners of the internet, the spread of disinformation declined 73 percent, according to a report in The Washington Post.
But an internet without Trump also leaves us with a series of questions. What happens to an ecosystem like Twitter when the person who represented both the center and a source of certain disorder, is banished? On top of that, what consequence does that have on users?