The Reductionist, Divisive Rhetoric of Trump and Twitter

As we hopefully now grapple with the darker components of how technology platforms, such as Facebook, can be easily manipulated by nefarious actors for sinister purposes, we would be remiss if we didn’t state the obvious.

The obvious: President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter is an example of a technology platform getting played by a powerful and deranged leader to effectively lie, bully and sow civil and social discord and unrest throughout the world. Facebook’s privacy problems are a major problem and need to be addressed, but Twitter has become a full-fledged agency of evil that first led to the rise of the racist and nationalistic Trump and now provides the main platform for his daily, unhinged rages.

Examples of Trump’s bizarre tweets are so numerous it seems senseless to even list a handful. Here’s the Trump Twitter Archive. For a quick snapshot, on Monday, the day after Easter, Trump began tweeting in the early morning and in a few hours had lied and distorted information about a “caravan” of immigrants, Mexico, and DACA’s demise, praised a right-wing media company while referring once again to fake news, criticized the company Amazon and the nation’s Department of Justice with erroneous claims and then, of all things after the vitriol and hatred, posted this gem:

Right, happy Easter, everyone. Trump is a mentally-ill autocrat, but Twitter, just like Facebook, has created the perfect reductionist rhetorical system that now allows despots, frauds, hackers, liars and hate mongers like him to thrive and gain power throughout the world. Trump is the prime example of how Twitter has deeply damaged our society and culture. Twitter’s leaders probably want to believe and want you to believe they’ve given voice to the disenfranchised and dispossessed, but, in fact, they’ve also very much entrenched the ruling hegemony and allowed evil to flourish.

The main problem has always been that Twitter reduces expression in terms of a limited number of characters, i.e. letters, numbers, etc.—not actual words—while Facebook pushes the idea that posting a one-line meme on a colorful background is something uniquely profound and somehow connecting. The bite-size rhetoric reduces the word count and, along with it, rational and truthful argumentation, now extinct from political discourse because of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Both companies, under the sanctimonious guise of connecting people, do this to make as much money as possible.

But, as I stated in the beginning of this post, I want to specifically deal with Twitter, the preferred platform of our tyrant president.

The idea that any good can come from Twitter’s brilliant plan to reduce the amount of information and facts one can or should use to present complicated ideas is preposterous. Supplanting longer arguments with two or three sentences with abbreviations and net speak is the quintessential dumbing down of our culture. Allowing a racist and nationalist like Trump to publicly humiliate and bully people of color and to repeatedly lie on a vast array of topics using its reductionist format is, and it must be said this strongly, the epitome of evil.

The arguments Twitter defenders will surely make is that (1) you don’t have to use the platform if you find it evil, (2) or, conversely, anyone can use it for good or bad, and (3) it’s a matter of freedom of speech, anyway.

None of these arguments even begin to hold up under Trump’s terms of engagement with the Twitter platform.

First, people are forced to use Twitter in many cases because of their jobs or their own needs of digital branding placed upon them in our current culture. Twitter makes people fully dependent on its platform in this regard. In many instances, people have no choice but to create an account. This includes business people, leaders of non-profit organizations, journalists, and, of course, politicians. This doesn’t even address the issue of how many people feel compelled to create an account just so they don’t appear antiquated.

Second, while it’s certainly true that rhetoric can be distorted in a multiple of ways to persuade, the Twitter platform makes it much easier for unscrupulous people to lie in larger ways, as Trump often does in his tweets. The fact that Twitter doesn’t strictly police its platform for veracity—and truth and decency will always matter for civilized societies to flourish—means it sanctions lies even if it’s also true that many people do use the platform to express neutral and positive messages. But unlike a responsible media company that has to get the facts right, Twitter doesn’t even pretend that facts and truthful information matter anymore.

Third, I believe free speech is absolutely paramount to democracy. But Twitter begs the question and creates the age’s main paradox. Under the rubric of free speech the so-called leader of the free world is now using Twitter to vilify people that also exercise their own freedom of expression while he additionally demonizes news organizations that report the truth. What if Trump is successful in suppressing freedom of expression through his outlandish claims about fake news, for example? In other words, Trump uses Twitter in an attempt to gut any free expression except his own immoral speech and constant lies. Support Trump’s use of lies and bullying on Twitter as just another form of free speech, even if reluctantly tolerated, and we just might end up without any free speech at all

I have intentionally used the loaded word “evil’ to describe Twitter and Trump’s use of it, which some people will no doubt think is hyperbole. I don’t believe the initial conception of Twitter was intrinsically evil, and I recognize that Twitter and other social media can connect groups of people working for good causes, such as the teacher strikes going on across the country right now. But let’s don’t fool ourselves. Twitter was based on the idea of making money through views and clicks. It’s conception was less about altruism and much more about the bucks.

There are no easy answers to the recent emergence of the myriad of problems social media has created by de-centering truth, promoting a reductionist rhetoric to debate serious matters and using personal data to sell advertising. These problems threaten our democracy. Trump can use Twitter so well because it encourages and even rewards low-information people like himself to lie and bully. That’s the way it makes money. Twitter should pull the plug on Trump, but it won’t because he’s just too good for its business.

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