Last month, after months of hyping up a forthcoming “social media platform” that would serve as a new home base online following his removal from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and other networks, former President Donald Trump unveiled a simple blog.
Launched on May 4, “From The Desk of Donald J. Trump" offered the sort of staccato, dyspeptic rants that until recently drove 90 percent of American news cycles. For 29 days, the site offered a vision of the nightmare universe we would be living in had the social networks not banned Trump following his incitement of a coup against his own government. In his posts, Trump regularly promoted the lie that the election had been stolen, attacked his fellow Republicans for insufficient fealty, and talked about how much better life had been when he was in office.
Upset by reports from the Washington Post and other outlets highlighting its measly readership and concerns that it could detract from a social media platform he wants to launch later this year, Trump ordered his team Tuesday to put the blog out of its misery, advisers said.
On its last day, the site received just 1,500 shares or comments on Facebook and Twitter — a staggering drop for someone whose every tweet once garnered hundreds of thousands of reactions.
Trump still wants to launch some other platform — timing not yet determined — and didn’t like that this first attempt was being mocked as a loser, according to a Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the former president’s plans.
As someone who both found Trump and his presidency repugnant and who makes my living posting to the web, I was of course delighted to read about the former president’s crushing defeat in the rough-and-tumble world of digital content creation. But the lessons from Trump’s failed blog are actually quite important, and worth a moment’s reflection as we wait for his next incarnation online.
There are two primary questions we wind up asking about problematic users of social networks. The first is whether they should have the ability to post at all — platform-level freedom of speech. And the second is whether the platform should amplify their account or their posts to other users — what the technologist Aza Raskin has called “freedom of reach.”
In the wake of Trump’s deplatforming, his supporters have framed the issue almost exclusively as a question of free speech. Last week, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that would make it illegal for social networks to deplatform candidates for elected office, he used First Amendment language.
“We are protecting Floridians’ ability to speak and express their opinions,” DeSantis said. “This will lead to more speech, not less speech because speech that’s inconvenient to the narrative will be protected.”
In truth, nothing has happened since January 6 that took away Trump’s ability to speak and express his opinion. Indeed, on most days in recent weeks, he had taken to his blog to do just that. Last Tuesday, a day after DeSantis signed the bill, Trump published 10 separate blog posts on all manner of subjects.
What Trump’s blog lacked, though, was reach. According to the Post, Trump’s blog peaked at 159,000 social interactions — paltry by the standards of a man used to seeing social metrics in the millions — and the peak arrived on his blog’s first day. It has been downhill for The Desk of Donald J. Trump ever since.
The disconnect highlights the actual utility of social platforms for Trump — especially of Twitter, where he focused almost all of his efforts. The power was not that they offered him a place to speak. Rather, it was that they amplified it in crucial ways, for free, to a massive worldwide audience.
Twitter added Trump to its suggested user list and kept him there for years, even after he had begun to promote the racist birther conspiracy against Barack Obama. Trending topics continuously highlighted Trump’s latest outrageous remarks, mostly without context, driving more attention. Ranking systems tuned to favor conflict promoted Trump’s bile into nearly every timeline on the platform at one point or another.
It’s true that Trump never would have attained the reach he got through Twitter were it not also the case that the entire Western media has the app open all day, often using the controversies found there as a de facto assigning editor. As with every platform story, social networks are not the only relevant actors here. A unified press corps that took Trump seriously as a mortal threat to democracy from the start, rather than as a clownish sideshow that was good for ratings, may have given him less airtime.
But after four blissful months of Trump-free Twitter, the platform’s value to him has never been more clear. Tweets are simply more powerful than posts on a website. They can be re-shared to a global audience with a single click; they can attract new followers by the millions; and they can set the agenda for many of the world’s most prominent journalists. Trump’s rapid retreat from blogging highlights the degree to which he depended on free reach — not free speech — to advance his malign agenda.
For platforms, there could hardly be a more powerful story about the significance of their amplification mechanics. By now, many of the platform executives I know are tired of the constant drumbeat of stories about how their networks spread misinformation, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and other harmful content. But the Trump story illustrates vividly why they matter. For the worst actors on their platforms, free reach is almost the entire appeal of using them.
Trump will be back online somewhere eventually, of course. It’s worth noting that for all his platform problems, Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party, and seems likely to run again in 2024 if he can. For that trick, he’ll need reach — and he’s actively searching for a platform to give it to him.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that his team has been in talks with two companies, named CloutHub and FreeSpace, to serve as his new digital home. (Trump is reportedly seeking upfront cash payments for joining their networks, rather than equity.) Meanwhile, Parler has once again bubbled up from the fever swamps onto the app stores, and will presumably continue to court Trump and his enablers as it seeks to create a Fox News equivalent to Facebook.
But it’s unclear whether a platform designed to be an echo chamber for conservatives can grant nearly the cultural or political benefits to Trump that Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube did. That’s why we can expect Republicans to continue fighting against platforms’ right to content moderation, at least when it comes to deplatforming political candidates. Because if Donald Trump can’t succeed without a Twitter account, you can bet most of them won’t, either.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech companies.
⬆️ Trending up: Amid news of the high rate of worker injuries at its facilities, Amazon said it would ease its controversial “time off task” metric for measuring worker performance. The company will also now hire workers who test positive for marijuana on screening tests, and support federal legalization legislation. (Matt Day / Bloomberg)
In letters sent Tuesday to executives at Google and parent company Alphabet, the lawmakers expressed alarm about the recent ouster of two women who led the company’s ethical artificial intelligence team and over reports that Google’s tools may perpetuate racial biases by relying on data that under-represents minorities.
“We are concerned about repeated instances where Alphabet missed the mark and did not proactively ensure its products and workplaces were safe for Black people,” they wrote in letters to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, among others.
A nonprofit advocacy group formed by top advisers to President Biden urged Facebook to initiate a probe of the role it may have played in instigating the January 6 Capitol attack. Building Back Together echoed a call made by the Oversight Board. (Cristiano Lima / Politico)
The Oversight Board accepted a case referred by Facebook about whether it should leave up a post from a state medical authority in Brazil that argued lockdowns are ineffective. A seemingly tricky case, given the mixed evidence here. (Oversight Board)
One hundred scholars warned that the United States is in grave danger of losing its democracy. “The playbook that the Republican Party is executing at the state and national levels is very much consistent with actions taken by illiberal, anti-democratic, anti-pluralist parties in other democracies that have slipped away from free and fair elections.” (Greg Sargent / Washington Post)
How India fell in, then out of love with Twitter. “Twitter’s ability to give India’s opposition voices a platform comes as its ranking on the World Press Freedom Index fell to 142 of 180 countries.” (Nilesh Christopher and Meher Ahmad / Rest of World)
Simple-minded requests for increased content moderation often ignore the costs, including increased censorship, this piece argues. “Conversations about content moderation often feel like complaining that the food is terrible and the portions are too small: It’s bad and there should be more.” (Evelyn Douek / Wired)
⭐ Facebook held its F8 Refresh developer conference today and made a number of announcements. Among them:
- Facebook said it would launch a dedicated API for academic researchers later this year, giving academics “real-time access to public Pages, Groups, Events and post-level U.S. data.” This could huge; I’m excited to see it. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
- Facebook is adding multiplayer augmented reality features to video calls in Messenger and Instagram. (Scott Stein / CNET)
- WhatsApp expanded business messaging options, including a new feature to let customers choose from pre-written options rather than typing messages out. (WhatsApp)
- Facebook is also expanding a program that lets businesses on Instagram use the Messenger API for e-commerce. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)
Longtime Facebook executive Marne Levine is the leading candidate for its chief business officer role. Levine was formerly chief operating officer at Instagram. (Sylvia Varnham O'Regan / The Information)
A look at this year’s doomed shareholder proposals at Alphabet, Facebook, and other tech giants. “At Alphabet on Wednesday, there are proposals to share more government content removal requests, to disclose further risks from antitrust probes and to add a human rights expert to the board.” (Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
The Alphabet Workers Union launched a campaign to push Google to allow employees to use their chosen names on ID badges. The move came after Phares Lee, a transgender man who works for Google contractor G4S at a data center in South Carolina, asked to have his deadname removed from his badge and was denied. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
YouTube said it paid out $4 billion in royalties to artists and music labels last year. That’s $1 billion less than Spotify did. (Jem Asward / Variety)
Twitter resumed taking verification requests, after pausing for four days. Prior to that, the company had accepted requests for eights days before saying it was too overwhelmed to continue. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Spotify rolled out a new suite of personalized playlists, modeled after its hugely successful year-end “Wrapped” campaign. And the playlists are great. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Zoom beat earnings estimates, but warned of a coming slowdown as the pandemic wanes. Revenue was $956.2 million, compared to the $906 million expected by analysts. (Jordan Novet / CNBC)
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