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Pattern Matching

The Instagrammed Insurrection and the Great Deplatforming

Booting Trump won’t solve social media’s problems. But it’s not a bad place to start.

Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The president of the United States is no longer allowed to post on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, or Shopify. Twitter said Friday night that its ban was permanent — and it was swiftly followed by suspensions of the @POTUS and @TeamTrump accounts when Trump attempted to use those instead. When Trump tried tweeting from the account of Gary Coby, his digital campaign director, Twitter promptly suspended that, too. The nonprofit First Draft started a helpful Google Doc to keep track of all the platform responses to the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Meanwhile, Google suspended the “free speech” social app Parler from the Google Play store, and Apple was threatening to do the same on its iOS App Store, imperiling a right-wing refuge that some expected to become Trump’s new platform. An evidently apoplectic Trump spent Friday evening “scrambling to figure out what his options are,” Politico reported. Before he was booted, he tweeted that he’s “negotiating with various other sites” and suggested he might even try to build his own social platform. (I have an idea for what to call it.)

In a column earlier this week, I wrote about how Facebook departed from its own rules to suspend Trump, and predicted that Twitter would soon find some pretext on which to ban him as well. It seems to have done just that, interpreting two comparatively anodyne Trump tweets on Thursday as grounds for permanent dismissal by reading beyond the text itself and into how it was being received by some of his conspiracy-minded supporters. (You can read Twitter’s blog post justifying the ban here.)

While my column might come across as a criticism of the decision to boot Trump, that wasn’t really my intent. What deserves criticism is the platforms’ longstanding effort to present their content moderation policies as objective, neutral, and consistent, when they are revealed on a regular basis to be mutable in the face of changing circumstances and public pressure. Of course deciding what speech to allow, and whom to allow to speak, is a highly subjective endeavor, and the sooner the platforms acknowledge that, the sooner we can have an honest discussion about how to ensure that responsibility isn’t abused. Transparency about the decision-making process would be a good start. (Twitter, to its credit, is farther along this path than Facebook.)

The deplatforming of a U.S. president is a big deal in itself, and will reverberate for years to come. No doubt it will inflame the right and give Fox News hosts something new to rail against in lieu of focusing on Trump’s own dereliction of the presidency. It will also likely echo beyond U.S. borders: Activists against the authoritarian regime in Iran, for instance, were quick to call for Twitter to apply the same standards to the account of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As momentous as Trump’s ouster from major social networks is, however, the events of this week are a reminder that the role of social media in fomenting chaos runs deeper than simply lending the president a platform. And the forces that conspired to wreak chaos upon the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday aren’t going away anytime soon.

The Pattern

The insurrection will be Instagrammed.

Among the many indelible images from Wednesday’s melee were scenes of rioters ambling down the Capitol’s statuary hall, snapping smartphone pics and holding selfie-sticks as they live-streamed their antics for their followers. Then there were the staged shots: The man in the horned hat and fur cape flexing from the Senate dais, the man putting his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk and gesturing toward his crotch. It almost had the feel of a made-for-social-media event. The Guardian catalogued some of the names and identities behind those images. Sleuths on Reddit and elsewhere are working on identifying more, though Kate Knibbs explained in Wired how the social platforms’ removal of content from the rioters is hindering those investigative efforts.

Noting all the posing and posturing, BuzzFeed News’ Elamin Abdelmahmoud made the case that what many observers described as a failed coup was perhaps better understood as a successful publicity stunt. In a provocative and well-written piece headlined “The Pro-Trump Mob Was Doing It For the ‘Gram,” Abdelmahmoud portrayed the rioters as products of the online conspiracysphere, their brains addled by misinformation and desperate for an audience. The goal, he argued, was not so much to overthrow democracy as to garner likes by owning the libs: “They were making content as spoils to take back to the digital empires where they dwell, where that content is currency.” In this view, they were only LARPing as revolutionaries. Really, they were just another breed of influencers, risking their lives for the perfect shot.

That’s an illuminating lens, and the story is well worth reading, as long as you keep in mind that it isn’t the whole story. As Dan Kois pointed out in Slate, many of the bozos talking to the press and posing for photos may have been doing it for the ‘gram. But there was a quieter contingent among the infiltrators who weren’t in it for the content — they were out for blood. Recalling the foiled plot by extremists to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, Kois zoomed in on the “zip-tie guys” — the ones dressed in paramilitary gear and carrying flex cuffs, presumably with the goal of taking hostages. (There were also nooses, molotov cocktails, and firearms.)

The element of absurdity in Wednesday’s proceedings doesn’t mean they shouldn’t terrify us, Kois argued. Examples from history such as the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed 1923 coup attempt, should remind us “how slippery the slope is from play acting as a strike force to actually behaving as a strike force. Once the zip ties go on, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a ‘real’ terrorist or not,” he wrote.

There’s the rub: There’s really no disentangling the online and offline worlds anymore. The people who dwell in digital fantasy worlds also dwell in our physical world. Online communities plan real-world events; real-world events fuel online conspiracies. It’s a feedback loop. And Trump’s actions have borne this out plenty of times. He laid the groundwork for his presidential run by championing the Obama birther conspiracy online. He was a central protagonist in the QAnon conspiracy. Throughout his term, he drew much of his power from the bully pulpits of Twitter and Facebook, from which he commanded an online troll army that he could sic on anyone who crossed him. Trumpism started with playacting by meme warriors online, and turned into a real-life U.S. presidency that will live in infamy.

There will be plenty of time for debates and recriminations as to whether Facebook and Twitter should have banned Trump earlier, or not at all, or whether they got the timing right. But to return to Abdelmahmoud’s BuzzFeed piece, I think one thing he got right was that the Trump-incited riot at the Capitol was about more than just Trump or the rioters:

It is no secret that social media algorithms have reframed how we think, and how we conduct ourselves online. Through promoting certain kinds of content, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have nurtured an environment where more extreme and partisan content is elevated and travels farther. It’s a dunking world. And many of these folks have spent so much time in the dank recesses of algorithmically ranked content that their brains saw yesterday’s “revolution” as an opportunity for meme-making.

In this view, the responsibility borne by the social media platforms goes far beyond failing to ban Donald Trump. The chaos in Washington has its roots in a toxic information environment, fueled at least in part by engagement-based algorithms that systematically reward sensationalism, extremism, and us-vs.-them thinking. And all the focus on the platforms’ treatment of Trump as an individual is at best tangential to the deeper issue of how their dynamics fueled his rise. As long as social media’s algorithms incentivize divisive rhetoric and foment tribalism, there will only be more Trumps, more QAnons, more hatred, and more riots to come.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time.

  • Are the content moderation wars coming for the cable companies? They haven’t yet, but in his Reliable Sources newsletter on Friday, CNN’s Oliver Darcy argued that they should. For all the justified anger at social media’s role in peddling conspiracies and misinformation, cable TV remains a more influential news source for the majority of Americans. And while Facebook and Twitter have been pressured to crack down on Trump and election misinformation, carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have been quietly beaming conspiratorial content from networks such as Newsmax and OAN into the homes of millions. One thing Darcy elides is that there is a real difference between cable companies offering viewers a menu of channels and social platforms deciding which posts they see at what time via algorithmic rankings. I would argue that the social platforms’ deeper problems are about who and what they amplify, rather than who they allow to speak. Still, it’s telling that the major carriers feel so insulated from the scrutiny that tech platforms are facing that they declined to even respond to Darcy.
  • The Apple Car project is getting back into gear. Cupertino has been hiring ex-Tesla executives with the goal of shipping an autonomous, electric vehicle within perhaps five or more years, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported. Hyundai initially confirmed it had talked with Apple about partnering on such a vehicle, though it awkwardly walked back those statements soon after. This seems like it could be a fool’s errand, given the roadblocks that self-driving car technology has encountered of late, not to mention the vast challenges of entering a highly specialized industry that has relatively little in common with the one Apple is known for. On the other hand, Apple has so thoroughly dominated the smartphone market that it has to look elsewhere for future growth. Hey, cars are a high-tech product that people spend a lot of money on. Why not, right?

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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