The Twitter account @realDonaldTrump died Friday. It was 11 years, 8 months old and had issued nearly 47,000 tweets. None of them survived. The cause of death was hubris.
Twitter's move to permanently suspend President Trump's account – which became a fount of lies and provocation even as it remained the first and last thing that many Americans doomscrolled each day – came after years of violations of company policies.
Whether the account should exist at all was a question debated almost daily, especially on Twitter. The San Francisco firm applied its policies laxly in the case of political figures for fear of regulatory backlash. And, some said, out of greed, because the president’s 88.7 million followers accounted for a substantial portion of the service’s activity.
The legacy of Trump’s presence on Twitter is, chiefly, shame – and shamelessness.
Shame on Trump, for indulging his id in public first as an entertainer, then as a political candidate, then as the most powerful man in the world.
Shame on Twitter and its CEO, Jack Dorsey; its board of directors, who include Salesforce’s Bret Taylor, among others; and its employees for inventing exception after exception for Trump rather than grappling with his misinformation and his intentional and repeated violations of rules against hate, abuse and violent incitement.
And shame on us, all of us, for often treating the account’s increasingly deranged pronouncements as entertainment rather than warnings in public view.
Trump was a late adopter of Twitter, by Silicon Valley standards. Not long after he joined in May 2009, the service’s users would send their billionth tweet. His Millennial daughter, Ivanka, was seen as the family’s social media maven, and outpaced him in followers for some time.
His motivation was simple: Twitter was a cheap and easy way to promote The Apprentice, the reality television series that was transforming him from business figure to pop culture phenomenon.
By late 2012, his Twitter usage had kicked into higher gear, though with 1.6 million followers, he badly trailed Rob Kardashian, the scion of an Internet-famous clan, and Yoko Ono, the Palm Beach Post noted. Birtherism, the false theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, was Trump’s ticket to a higher plane of social media celebrity.
Obama’s re-election bothered Trump. In an episode that, in retrospect, should have served as a loud klaxon, Trump called it “a great and disgusting injustice”.
“He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election,” Trump tweeted falsely. (Obama won both the Electoral College and the popular vote against Mitt Romney in 2012.) “We should have a revolution in this country!”
Trump deleted the fomentation, but NBC’s Brian Williams took note, reading the tweets on air and saying Trump “had driven well past the last exit to relevance”.
Yet @realDonaldTrump kept on motoring. In 2013, it achieved a singular measure of Twitter fame: The account was hacked, posting a Lil Wayne lyric. Michael Cohen, the lawyer and spokesman for Trump who would later plead guilty to charges including lying to Congress, said there would be an investigation. If one ensued, its outcome was never revealed.
Trump often used Twitter to go on the attack. His victims ranged from actress Kristen Stewart (an unsuitable companion to Robert Pattinson, Trump said) to Florida Power & Light (“one of the worst utility companies in the country”) to Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin (“third-rate”) to comedian Rosie O’Donnell (“a true loser”).
In 2014 and 2015, as Trump flirted with the idea of running as a Republican candidate for president, his tweets took off again. He overtook Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in followers in 2015. By mid-2016, Trump had a direct line to more than 10 million people – Republicans, Democrats and bots alike.
“I'm not saying I love it, but it does get the word out,” Trump said of Twitter on 60 Minutes in 2016.
Brad Parscale, the 2016 Trump campaign’s digital director, credited Facebook, not Twitter, for Trump’s surprise victory over Clinton. But Facebook never captured Trump’s imagination like Twitter.
Many noted the tight link between his other favourite medium, cable television, and Twitter: Trump could tweet on his smartphone’s small screen and see his words scrolling on a flat screen minutes later. “I call Twitter a typewriter... because it goes onto Facebook automatically, and it goes onto Instagram and it goes onto television,” Trump said in 2019, according to the Hill.
Trump’s victory was, at least financially, shared by Twitter the company. Its shares had struggled since its 2013 initial public offering. Bloomberg estimated in 2017 that Twitter, then worth nearly US$12bil (RM48.39bil), would lose a fifth of its value without Trump.
The president’s tweet storms centered the political conversation on Twitter, making it indispensable, if not always loved, by everyone from TV news producers to congressional aides to Trump’s own White House staff, which had to turn on notifications to learn of the president’s latest pronouncements.
Some hoped that Trump and his Twitter habit would mature in office, or that at least a strong-willed chief of staff would take away his phone. It never happened.
Instead, publications compiled listicles of Trump’s least-presidential tweets, from the inexplicable time he typed “covfefe” to his proclamation of himself as a “stable genius” to the time he didn’t quite call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “short and fat”. These compendiums required constant updating.
Whenever Trump tweeted, friends and foes alike raced to retweet, quote tweet, like, respond and ratio. A cottage industry of subtweeters emerged.
All the while, Twitter failed to act. Dick Costolo, a former CEO of the company, once said it was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party”. A co-founder, Biz Stone, put it more simply: “The tweets must flow.”
Since the company’s earliest days, it drew reproach for not doing enough to stop harassment, abuse and ugliness. In 2018, Dorsey pledged to “increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation”. Yet the @realDonaldTrump tweets kept coming.
It was not until last May that Twitter placed a fact-check label on a Trump tweet that falsely suggested mail-in voting was insecure.
Then, in June, as Americans protested for racial justice, Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. It was the kind of call to violence that would normally get a user booted from the service under Twitter’s ever-tightening rules.
But Twitter merely placed a warning label over the tweets, repeating its argument that being able to view Trump’s statements served the public interest. He was, after all, the president. As Trump amped up his false claims of election fraud in the run-up to the election and afterward, Twitter kept labelling his tweets.
After Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, some of his hold over his followers in the media and politics seemed to fade. In November, CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter made a show of turning off push notifications from Trump’s account on air. His follower count declined.
Then came Trump’s last stand. In December, he called his followers to a protest in Washington on Jan 6, the day Congress would meet to count the Electoral College votes and certify Biden as the winner of the presidential contest. “Be there, will be wild!” he tweeted.
It was. Egged on by a speech Wednesday morning and more tweets, a mob ransacked the Capitol. Twitter suspended Trump’s posting privileges, and other social media companies followed suit. Several threatened permanent bans if Trump crossed more lines.
After a brief, closely watched pause, Trump returned to Twitter Thursday with a conciliatory video. He would soon return to combative form. A pair of tweets the next day sealed @realDonaldTrump’s fate: His vow to avoid Biden’s inauguration and a reference to voters’ “GIANT VOICE” could be read as inciting further violence by questioning the result of the election, Twitter said.
The company had had enough. Twitter suspended @realDonaldTrump permanently Friday, erasing all of Trump’s tweets from public view.
One of Trump’s Twitter nemeses, O’Donnell, took the opportunity to speak of the dead.
“You must awaken from his spell, Trumpers,” she wrote Friday. “Look what evil he has wrought. You are not like him. He is poison and has infected millions in the last four years. Free yourself from his deluded grasp.” – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service
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