The source of Donald Trump’s strength also turned out to be his Achilles’ heel. When the major social media giants, notably Twitter and Facebook, shut down Trump’s ability to post, he became a much-diminished figure on the world stage, even before his replacement, Joe Biden, was sworn in. Without social media, Trump hasn’t been able to bully Republican lawmakers with quite so much success nor rally his followers so effectively. It’s notable that calls for protests at state capitols, following the botched putsch of January 6, have fizzled.
Deplatforming, it is now clear, works. Without the megaphone of social media, Trump is no longer the booming and scary Wizard of Oz but rather the pathetic little man behind the curtain. But the silencing has come at a price. It has shown the enormous power that privately owned social media has. In response, both social media companies and also mainstream news outlets as well as think tanks have stepped up the policing of speech. Likely motivated by a misguided effort to prove they are balanced, these powerful centrist institutions are now engaged in an active effort to silence voices that make conservatives mad.
As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara reported on Saturday, “The largest revolutionary socialist org in the UK has its Facebook pages and groups removed and Twitter suspended a bunch of US-based anarchist accounts.” YouTube put a strike on the left-wing news account The Serfs, claiming it violated rules about “deceptive practices” in an anti-Trump news report. In Spain, YouTube banished the channel La Marea, a major left-wing source in Spain, for allegedly “inciting hatred” when it reported on vigilantes’ attacking migrants. On Sunday, Facebook shuttered the page of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan, an officially recognized campus group.
The same pattern is notable in other media. As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic noted on Saturday, “This week alone, people were fired from the New York Times, the Niskanen Center, and Fox News for making conservatives mad.”
The cases cited by Serwer are disparate, but all speak to a new media environment where mainstream outlets are apparently more nervous about offending Trump supporters and go out of their way to crack down on critical voices.
On Thursday, journalist Yashar Ali reported, “Lauren Wolfe, who was an editor on contract for the NYT, has had her contract canceled after she tweeted what’s on the left. Wolfe also tweeted what’s on the right, but deleted when she learned Biden chose to take his own plane.” (In point of fact, Wolfe didn’t have a contract but rather an informal freelance arrangement that was severed.)
Ali posted two screen shots, one where Wolfe wrote, “Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills.” The other tweet from Wolfe claimed that the Trump administration had broken with tradition by not sending a military plane to pick up Biden. Wolfe deleted this tweet herself after discovering the claim was untrue.
Wolfe’s tweet saying she had “chills” was criticized by some conservatives as well as the heterodox reporter Glenn Greenwald on the grounds it showed bias.
The circumstances of Wolfe’s firing remain murky. A spokesperson for the The New York Times told The Washington Post, “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.”
The phrasing of this denial, saying that a “single tweet” was not the cause, leaves open the possibility it was two or more tweets that triggered the firing. The matter remains disturbing, because the two tweets hardly merit a loss of employment. One is an innocent mistake quickly corrected, the other not even a partisan expression but rather simple relief, which was widely shared across the political spectrum, that a peaceful transfer of power was proceeding. (The firing of Wolfe is all the more puzzling because the Times has kept on journalists who have committed much greater offenses, notably podcast producer Michael Barbaro, who oversaw a radio report on ISIS that was riddled with false testimony from someone who lied about being a member of the terrorist group. At the very least, this suggests a double standard at the newspaper.)
The Times, which enjoyed much marketing success in the Trump era as the voice of the resistance, seems to be recasting itself in its more traditional role as a centrist outlet that provides a neutral perspective. That’s perfectly understandable as a business decision, but it produces a myopic standard of objectivity. Like many centrist news outlets, the Times mistakes not voicing an opinion with being unbiased. This leads to the paradox of wanting to hire reporters who are well-informed—but indifferent to what they write about, as if such a thing were common. Genuine objectivity means a hard-won professional adherence to ferreting out the truth and presenting it accurately—a trait found just as easily in the opinionated as in the nonpolitical.
On Wednesday, Will Wilkinson, vice president of the moderately conservative think tank the Niskanen Center, tweeted, “If Biden really wanted unity, he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The meaning of this mordant joke, a literal exercise in gallows humor, is clear: Trump supporters on January 6 threatened to hang Pence. Unity, if followed to its logical and absurd conclusion, would mean making common cause with these would-be assassins. It was a mockery of the vacant rhetoric of unity. Wilkinson quickly recognized the tweet could be seen in poor taste and deleted it with an apology.
Right-wing outlets like The Federalist took up Wilkinson’s tweet and made the bad-faith argument that it was meant literally. Jerry Taylor, the president of Niskanen, responded with a statement saying, “As an organization, the Niskanen Center appreciates and encourages interesting and provocative online discourse. However, we draw the line at statements that are, or can in any way be interpreted as condoning or promoting violence. As such, the Niskanen Center has, with a heavy heart, parted ways with Will Wilkinson.” Wilkinson is also a contributor to the Times, which said it was reviewing his contract.
Fox News is, of course, a right-wing outlet, but its news division is often regarded as being much more objective and committed to truth than its opinion side. But after the January 6 failed putsch, Fox seems to want to win back right-wing supporters by disciplining their news reporters. As the Times reported on Tuesday,
Two senior leaders of Fox News’s reporting division are exiting the network as the cable channel replaces some news programming with right-wing opinion shows and tries to lure back viewers who balked at its coverage of the 2020 election and its aftermath.
On Tuesday morning, Fox News fired Chris Stirewalt, the veteran politics editor who was an onscreen face of the network’s election night projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had defeated President Trump in Arizona, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
The social media clampdown combined with the firings at the Times, the Niskanen Center, and Fox News all point in the same direction: Major institutions are now trying to placate the Trumpian right. The cost of Trump’s being quieted as a public voice is that many other voices now are going to be silenced as well. This is too high a price, and reminds us that, though Trump has gone, the real battle for media democracy has just started.