Donald's downfall and what it means for media
Ray Snoddy picks through the bones of the final days of Trump's presidency in the hope that it leads to change and a better way for media
President Donald J. Trump, right at the end of his presidency, has finally done something truly useful – if a long way from reputable.
He was working up to it last month when he tried, unsuccessfully, to browbeat election officials in Georgia to “find” the votes he needed to win the state.
There in glorious detail was the evidence of a crime that carries a three-year prison sentence on a tape leaked to the Washington Post.
That was merely the amuse-bouche.
Trump became really useful when he went too far, way too far, by encouraging his rag-tag army of supporters to march on the U.S Capitol, in effect leading an insurrection designed to block the final confirmation of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States.
There is no ambiguity and nowhere to hide for the social media billionaire, happily abetted until very recently by the U.S TV networks, which did so much to create the phenomena that is Donald J Trump.
They also did more than any other actors to profit mightily from sowing and then exacerbating divisions in American society.
Finally Trump had gone too far – too far even for Jack Dorsey the Twitter founder, who first suspended and then banned Trump permanently from using his primary megaphone.
Others, from Facebook and Google to YouTube rapidly fell into line.
It is a true turning point in human history and as rapid as it was brutal.
Within the course of a week, the social media platforms have been forced by the extraordinary course of events and an unhinged U.S President to admit responsibility for the falsehoods and poison their platforms carry in a way they have never done before.
They are publishers, whether they formally recognise the name or not, and they are responsible for their actions and their algorithms.
Amazon has acted to deny bandwidth to Parler, one of the last social media islands for those who think Fox News is now far too left-wing.
YouTube has blocked the Trump channel and Twitter has banned no less than 70,000 accounts of the followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims the world is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
QAnon supporters were prominent in the attack on the U.S Capitol, which resulted in at least five deaths.
Facebook is now getting stuck into those continuing to spread the lie that somehow the election was stolen from Donald Trump, a lie that could lead to further violence on Inauguration Day.
Trump the individual is now finished as a politician, although Trumpism and all that it stands for is an entirely different matter.
There are of course enormous issues at stake, and equally enormous questions, for all of the media not just the online variety.
Is such censorship of ideas ever justified in a democracy whose main strength is supposed to be the ability to cope, even with ideas that would serve to undermine the very concept?
Is it right that the billionaire owners of private companies, have largely by technological chance assumed the power to say Yes or No to what is transmitted, instantly, around the world?
And if not Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, who?
The first problem is relatively easy to define and answer. The media silencing of those in power who advocate violence before that violence actually happens is not censorship but a civic duty.
The parallels may not have been entirely exact but it’s interesting that the Austrian-born former Republican Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger should have compared the attack on the Capitol with the rise of the Nazis and Kristallnacht when the windows of Jewish businesses were smashed.
Should the likes of Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Bezos be the arbiters of what gets on the internet?
Only in the most simple, superficial way that they can do what they like with the companies they own or control.
What they are doing is exercising that power from the heart of the greatest, self-sustaining monopolies the world has ever seen, far more pervasive than the barons of the past – in steel, newspapers and telecommunications.
There has to be a better way and that can only be a comprehensive system of regulation on behalf of society that controls, not just threats of violence and seriously dangerous false information, but also the scale of the current modern monopolies.
The better way has to be a rule-based system that moves on from the Wild West era of the internet and the whims of powerful individuals reacting to the extremes of a dying Presidency.
One of those academics with a clear sense of historic perspective on such issues is Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism who got right to the heart of the matter on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.
The masters of the internet started out by creating bulletin-boards but they had turned it into “the global bloodstream.”
The trouble is that under this form of “mutant media” anyone can inject, almost unhindered, any form of poison they like.
For Zuboff, we are still at the early stages of the internet – the rough equivalent of the Dark Satanic Mills of the industrial revolution, before limits were placed on such things as working hours, or rights established such as collective bargaining.
The events in the Capitol building amounted to “a wake up call for those who still need to be awoken, ” according to Zuboff.
By going too far, even by his own wretched standards, President Trump has at least performed a useful service – inadvertently.
What next for the media – new and old?
There has to be an awakening, or a reawakening, on just how important accurate, factual information is not just to society but also the sustaining of fundamental democratic freedoms.
There has to be a more robust attitude to traditional tendencies to seek to balance what is true with what is manifestly false that served Trump so well.
The events in the Capitol – so well captured by ITN’s Robert Moore and his crew risking life and limb filming from the heart of the mob – have to mark the start of the long, difficult, journey towards the effective and comprehensive regulation of the social media.
It should be conducted by rational argument rather than by conspiracy theorists carrying large sticks.