One of the few blessings of our current era is Donald Trump’s refreshing habit of bluntly explicating the Republican will to power without the customary pretexts. The conservative movement’s finest minds have spent years developing elaborate legal and constitutional arguments for positions like restricting ballot access, denying statehood to citizens of the District of Columbia, and so forth. And Trump simply comes along and bellows out that his objection is to Democrats having political representation.
The emerging conservative campaign to discipline social media follows the pattern. Party ideologists like Josh Hawley are working up neutral-sounding pretexts for the state to pressure tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to promote more Republican-friendly content, and Trump’s regulatory appointees are carefully attempting to follow through. But Trump has no patience for the subtleties of the game, and instead blurts out the bottom line.
The current pretext for Trump’s complaint is Twitter’s decision to begin implementing some mild fact-checking measures. Yesterday, the social-media firm appended contextual news articles to Trump tweets claiming both ongoing and future voter fraud on a massive scale. The well-intentioned effort seems very likely to fail. It will prove impossible to settle on a remotely workable answer to the problem either of what kind of statement qualifies as a lie, and which users are big enough to merit correction when they do. And while many rules have difficult edge cases, in this instance, the edge cases will swallow up the rule itself.
The root cause for Twitter’s discomfort is Trump’s systemic lies. Trump’s foundational insight throughout his public life has been to overwhelm the system’s capacity to handle dishonesty. In 1982, Trump tried to persuade Forbes that he was worth $900 million. The reporter, Jonathan Greenberg, diligently unraveled Trump’s lies and listed him at $100 million, only to discover decades later he was actually worth $5 million. Greenberg later explained that his attempts to expose Trump’s enormous lies had merely conscripted him in the dissemination of slightly less-huge ones.
If Trump has a genius, it lies in turning even platforms that are attempting to correct his lies into vehicles to spread them further. How many people glancing at news chyrons about Trump’s wild smears of Joe Scarborough have come away with the impression that Scarborough probably did something wrong? Twitter’s fact-checkers will probably soon find themselves mired neck-deep in the same epistemological swamp into which every Trump fact-checker has sunk.
Of course, Trump would prefer to disseminate his lies pure and unfiltered. His ambitions to bully social media have been indiscrete even by Trumpian standards. Last August, he complained of anti-conservative bias at Google and warned he was “watching Google very closely”:
Holding a meeting with right-wing social-media agitators, Trump announced his plans to demand more favorable treatment for his supporters. “We have a lot of these companies coming in a little while,” Trump said outside the White House. “We’re going to be very tough with them. They’re treating conservatives very unfairly.”
Last week, Trump described the political orientation of social-media firms as “totally illegal,” as if private companies have an obligation to hire some percentage of his supporters:
Today he threatened to regulate or close them down if not given satisfaction:
It is fashionable to dismiss Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric as just harmless clowning. But his failure to fulfill his goal of total control of media is far from certain. There is a concrete program of regulation underway. Several agencies — the Justice Department, FCC, FTC, and Commerce Departments — have reportedly been working on executive orders to crack down on alleged social-media bias against conservatives. Whatever emerges is unlikely to fully satisfy Trump’s threatening rhetoric.
But Trump is also less than halfway through his potential two terms, and he has just begun to master a bureaucracy that frustrated him through most of his first couple years in office. More importantly, Trump’s demands of the media are never going to stop short of absolute fealty. Look at his recent complaints against Fox News, which have angered him by interrupting the hours on end of Trumpian propaganda with pockets of straight news reporting that only lean somewhat to the right. There is no endpoint of neutrality that could satisfy him. Once he has made social media taste the whip, he will continue cracking it.