Decoder Newsletter: Not Social Media, Trump Media

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Viviana Padelli | January 11, 2021

Produced by MapLight, the Decoder is a newsletter to help you track the most important news, research, and analysis of deceptive digital politics. Each week, we'll send you coverage of the webs of entities that seek to manipulate public opinion, their political spending ties, and the actors working to safeguard our democracy. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

  • The prelude: Though it seems quite distant now, it was just over a week ago that audio of President Trump trying to convince election officials to alter the vote count in Georgia was released. At one point in the exchange, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger tries to calm an increasingly irrational and irate Trump by reminding him that not everything he sees on social media is true. “Oh this isn’t social media,” Trump responds. “This is Trump media.”

  • Running riot: On Wednesday, the consequences of what it means to be living in the era of Trump media were on full display, as a mob of violent Trump supporters broke into the Capitol. And while it might have been Trump media egging them on, there’s no denying that it was social media providing the platform. The riot was based on lies spread on social media, planned and advertised across social media sites, and unchecked by social media policies

  • Of note: In Slate, Dan Kois says that he ‘can’t stop thinking about the zip-tie guys’ and urges us not to treat this as a farce. In Buzzfeed, Elamin Abdelmahmoud noted that the riot seemed to be less about seizing power, and more about seizing that perfect selfie -- a sign of just how much online content has become both currency and caché.  In The Conversation, Jonathan Sarna, a Professor of Jewish History, looks at the connections between anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, and the attack on the Capitol. In FiveThirtyEight, Hakeem Jefferson points out that while digital disinformation was an important component of Wednesday’s violence, we should not lose sight of the fact that this was also about protecting white supremacy, while Maggie Koerth provides data that shows the lax police response was not an aberration, but part of a larger, racist pattern.

  • The Bans: With a clear rubicon passed, social media companies were more decisive than they have been in the past. Facebook immediately took action and *checks notes* stopped their employees from talking about the storming of the Capitol. But over the next few days, the bans began to roll in. Currently Facebook, Twitter and Twitch have banned Trump indefinitely. Shopify has stopped selling his merchandise, Reddit has banned the r/The_Donald subreddit, and Discord has banned pro-Trump server ‘The Donald’. Apple and Google Play have also both taken Parler off their app stores, and Amazon Web Services has stopped hosting it. YouTube meanwhile *checks notes again* has introduced a new ‘strike’ system for videos that violate its policies. The company has said this policy will apply to all videos ‘regardless of who uploads it.’ The Verge has a lifesaver of an updating story on actions the different platforms are taking.

  • Reactions: On OneZero, Will Oremus highlights that Facebook has had to change its own rules to ban the President, underscoring that this is not about policy, but profit. In The Root, Rashad Robinson argues that corporations that enabled the insurgency -- including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which have ignored civil rights groups’ warnings for years -- need to be held accountable. In Wired, Roger McNamee contends that this event shows, once and for all, why uniform, legislative regulation of social media platforms is needed.

  • Reactions II: Inevitably, the bans have led to a discussion about free speech. In the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall’s column has law experts weigh in on different aspects of the debate. Genevieve Lakier, from the University of Chicago, has a thread addressing the private company aspect of the debate. Dr. Kelly J. Baker shared a thread of her personal experience with what many view as a new form of speech silencing - abuse and threats by trolls.  And, because it bears endless repeating, Kevin Roose points out that this once again shows just how much effect two unelected tech CEOs have on our Democracy. To that final point though, Democrats have apparently begun to talk about tech policy reforms and regulations, meaning that it might soon be elected, rather than unelected, officials making tech policy decisions.

  • Georgia Election: Though it might be hard to remember now, there was also an election in Georgia last week. Politico details how a flood of disinformation was affecting poll workers. Popular Info also chronicled many of the false ads and disinformation in Facebook ads about the races. Following the election, Facebook has reinstated a political ads ban in the state.

  • Honest Ads: The ‘For the People Act’ (H.R.1) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last Monday. The act calls for addressing gerrymandering, protecting access to voting and improving transparency online by expanding disclosure rules for online political ads, as well as requiring online platforms to maintain a public database of all online political ads. MapLight President Daniel G. Newman praised the bill, saying that it is ‘past time for comprehensive reforms to improve our democratic infrastructure.’