Although incredibly damaging to American political life, the Presidency of Donald Trump has been – in some ways – a blessing in disguise for the media sector. Showman antics drove up readership while constant attacks on the media lead to a reactive jump in subscriptions some have labelled the “Trump bump”.
Now, by getting himself banned from Twitter, Facebook and other social media, Trump has managed to halt and perhaps even reverse a trend that has long eroded the societal role of the media – to act as both a platform and a filter for politicians communicating with the public.
Before going any further, let’s make one thing clear: the consistent campaign of hate toward the media waged by Trump and those of his ilk has been one of the darkest chapters of recent years. It will take years of work to heal the social rift – years during which media workers will be exposed to unjustifiable risks and abuse simply for fulfilling their socially important role.
That is why it is all the more important for the media community to seize the current opportunity to share the public space for years to come.
The low cost of ignoring the media
Trump was not the first politician to realize the opportunity in social media (Barack Obama famously leveraged social media), but he did perfect the art form. Through constant Tweeting and public stunts, he constantly kept journalists on the back foot. Rallies replaced press conferences and outrageous posts meant that new outlets had no choice but
Despite shunning normal interactions with media – a staple of politics for decades – he managed to get the equivalent of anywhere from $2 to $5 billion in free advertising. More importantly, he managed to completely bypass media outlets as filters and fact-checkers for his statements. Sure, the coverage may have been negative, but the publicity (plus a “fake news” campaign), was enough to secure victory.
This approach has since been copied by populist politicians around the world. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was one the best students of this approach (to be fair, he added his innovations, too). Zelensky replaced campaign events with concerts and opted for social media videos, rather than interviews, to get his message out.
His Chief of Staff Andry Bohdan would later sum up this approach: “Our election campaign has proved, we communicate with society without mediators, without journalists.”
There is something to be said for direct communications with the public. But media also play a broader role that can be easily lost. Journalists can ask tough questions, correct false statements, follow up…
Editorial judgement can be used to provide a platform or not. It’s not perfect – and social media provide an important alternative, particularly in authoritarian countries (more on that later). But it is an important element of the checks and balances that are critical to a normal, functioning society.
Following the Trump ban, the “screw the media” strategy no longer seems as appealing. Politicians need to maintain at least a modicum of civil relations with the media to be viable long term. This significantly hampers the most radical candidates’ long-term viability.
As Angelo Carusone, chief executive of non-profit Media Matters, told the FT: “[Trump’s] political power will be affected because [the social media ban] limits his ability to serve as the centralised voice of the opposition. Without a doubt it takes a huge amount of wind out of his sails.”
Living in a tech tyranny
The ban sparked a lot of criticism, mostly centred around the impact on free speech. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny took to Twitter, decrying the ban “an unacceptable act of censorship.” German Chancellor Angela echoed similar concerns.
Both statements got a lot of coverage, though, somewhat undermining the grounds of their arguments. Navalny could have issued a press release. More importantly, Merkel (who does not have an account), expressed her statements through her spokesperson.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the unilateral power to “de-platform”, wielded by an unelected executive at a handful of social media giants, is not something to be welcomed. The comments of most of the tech firms – citing incitement of violence and risk of terrorist activity – are not convincing coming from platforms were incitement and hate speech are a daily occurrence.
Nor is state intervention a solution. This might arguably work for strong rule-of-law and highly democratic states. But it is easy to see how it would be abused in even hybrid regimes. Strongmen around the world are already all too eager to label their opponents as radicals or terrorists.
This is precisely why media needs to step in and seize this opportunity to become part of the discussion on how social media access will be regulated. The Economist’s call to create a media regulator that would oversee platforms and who they ban is the right way to go.
But as seen from the example of Facebook’s Oversight Board, this cannot be a PR stunt, and more importantly it cannot be set up by the tech platforms themselves. News media should play a critical, even leading role – and not just in the US, but in each and every country.
Ironically, through his ham-fisted attempts to foment sedition, Trump may just have given the fourth estate a chance to become great again.
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