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Trump, Twitter and the Ban Debate - Binoy Kampmark

Trump, Twitter and the Ban Debate

By Binoy Kampmark

It is said that Twitter has been responsible for stirring nascent revolutions in the Middle East, going beyond its initial description as the Seinfeld platform of social media. It has also been targeted by authorities for stirring the pot, lighting fires and generally being a nuisance.

From useless babble and inane navel gazing, users became connected activists, Molotov cocktail throwers and inane spouters of few-line messages. A whole spectrum of connectivity, riddled with messages of varying quality, grew up.

What then, of the terms of use? Given the nature of the platform, community guidelines, of a sort, are supposedly meant to be followed. This hardly means that they are enforced with any zeal. It means that an individual such as minor celebrity Tila Tequila, whose social media rants were often richly anti-Semitic, will only be banned after taking a bridge too far. That bridge was crossed in posting a picture of herself in the company of two men luxuriating with the Nazi salute.

The suspensions share a thread of inconsistency, though they veer from aspects of bullying (such as New Zealander Hanna, known on Twitter as “Poison Ivy” or then 19-year-old Jane Oranika on racial suggestiveness in an online make-up video on how to make a White Face. “Barack Obama? Is that some kind of sauce?” Trump supporters didn’t see the humour in that.

Various, even more venal figures have made it to the ban list. George Zimmerman, who gunned down an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012, was suspended in 2015. But it was the now oft used term “revenge porn” that ultimately sank his social media bliss, despite previously posting a picture of his murderous handiwork: Martin, lingering lifelessly in the grass.

The knotted realm of bitchiness and abuse is one thing; but removing political activists from the platform for violating various forms of claimed conduct is an onerous, and in some cases dangerous task. One of the discordant voices of the alt-right movement, and Breitbart’s former tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, provides such a case. When does free speech, notably of the insensitive sort, transmute into pure hate speech?

Where Yiannopoulos ran foul was leading a social media strike on actress Leslie Jones of Ghostbusters fame, a form of character assassination in text. This got him booted off the platform in 2016. Since then, he has been doing a merry dance on the controversial plank, suggesting the possibility that 13-year-olds might have learning sexual relationships with older pedagogues. Such inspirations of antiquity have not gone down well in a social media world less attuned to manuscripts than bleeps.

Which brings us, at last, to the President himself. Donald Trump has conjured, confected and suggested as few others on Twitter. He has made the social media platform a direct link to the voter in unprecedented ways.

He has also, according to the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon, done enough to be blackballed by the Twitter party. His suggestions go further than most. He argues that the Trump tweet fest poses a “national security threat” which emboldens “our enemies to take advantage of his flagrant shortcomings.”

Willimon’s views are traditionally contractarian, though he notes that Trump is different from any user. “Only one person on @Twitter is President of the United States. That comes with a supreme and unique responsibility.”

Twitter may well connect the globe, but, “That comes with its own responsibility: to do your part in protecting the world.” In accusing former President Barack Obama of having “wire tapped” Trump Tower, with no evidence, the Trump show had generated the grounds for deletion.

Much of the argument on banning Trump from Twitter is precisely because of his effect. He may be the first instance in history of a verifiable, causally effective figure on the platform. Not all of his less than 140 character notes have been atrocious, let alone distasteful. Amidst the slime lurk bits of Schadenfreude everybody can enjoy. Where will the wrecking ball strike next?

Lockheed Martin, to take one example, felt the shareholder pinch at various Trump tweets, most notably on the “tremendous cost and cost overruns” of the F-35 fighter program. Shares in December fell by 2 per cent, surely a joy for anybody against the Military Industrial Complex. Since then, the President has withdrawn that wrecking ball, changing his tune on the F-35 to embrace it for its sudden efficiency on costing.

Other arguments suggest that Twitter, being a private platform, generates its own rules. Free speech can never morph into hate speech; and so on. Going into a bar may well see you served a drink. The publican, however, reserves the right to ignore your custom at any one point for drunkenness or any other number of reasons, not all of them reasonable.

As shown previously, the puppeteers of the platform are not always predictable. Nor, perhaps, can they be. Besides, shutting off the Trump reality show from a crucial feature of his communications apparatus would be to deprive Planet Earth, not merely of a hysterical show, but a first hand, unvarnished view of what the current President of the United States thinks. That would be even more dangerous.

* * *

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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