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Trump's New Blog Is a Trap
The only way to win is not to play
Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
A Quick Thought on Facebook’s Oversight Board Decision
This morning the Board delivered its long-awaited decision with this slippery, misleading headline: Oversight Board upholds former President Trump’s suspension, finds Facebook failed to impose proper penalty.
The Board did the thing journalists do when their piece is more boring than they want it to be — they jacked up the headline so its sharable and buried the actual, more nuanced lede in paragraph three. The gist is that the board doesn’t like Facebook’s “indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension” and wants Facebook to review the matter and make a decision that can be applied to all violating users within six months.
There’s actually an opportunity here for Facebook to get beyond the on-or-deplatformed binary. Last week, I wrote about a proposal from researcher, Aviv Ovadya who urged the Oversight Board to think about unbundling Facebook’s features and imposing actual friction on bad actors, especially political leaders. You should give it a read as it’s even more relevant today than it was a week ago. I’m not optimistic that Facebook will adopt Ovadya’s suggestions, if only because they force the platform to publicly confront how its architecture gives a natural advantage to its most shameless leaders.
As far as the Oversight Board? I don’t really know what to think. I’m inclined to see this whole experiment as a bit of a sham and today’s punt and misleading headline aren’t helping. This tweet from my former colleague, Binya, sums up where I’m at:
With Trump still in posting purgatory, I regret to inform you the former president is now blogging. Sort of. On Tuesday, Trump launched a “communications platform” or, as his website calls it, "a place to speak freely and safely." I’d argue those descriptions are quite generous. What really happened: Donald Trump likely paid Brad Parscale’s Campaign Nucleus a preposterous amount of money to set him up with a Squarespace page where he can send fake tweets by himself to approximately zero followers.
Don’t let the fact that this webpage is connected to the internet fool you: This website is awful. The entire “communications platform” is a giant loophole designed to bypass Trump’s various social media bans by letting other people tweet out his message on his behalf. But the integration is gloriously janky. This is what it looked like when I used the 'Twitter' share button on one of his posts:
Just garbage. The Trump text is totally cut off so the message is basically incomprehensible. The Twitter share button just forces us all to gaze upon a posed photo of Trump…signing a…Bible with a sharpie (normal stuff!). They didn’t even spring for a link shortener so now you’ve got a trail of digital gibberish all up in your tweet. I’m no social media maven but this is like ‘Senior Spring’ levels of phoning it in. If you want something to go viral, this ain’t it.
Also, this happens:
Also, apparently the ‘like’ button doesn’t do…anything?:
None of this matters, of course. The Trump website is essentially a GoFundMe page for the twice-impeached leader of the Republican Party. The one link that does work is the one that says ‘CONTRIBUTE’ and leads to a nice page where you can give the man your money. There’s also a nice Facebook Pixel tracker on the site that will collect some nice data that can be used to target custom audiences on the platform. Trump’s account is, obviously, banned at the moment, but maybe Trump-adjacent accounts could use this. Or perhaps Trumpworld might sell that dataset to a third party for advertising purposes. Maybe it might be useful later on for a potential campaign.
There is, though, one way that this poorly designed loophole can succeed: If journalists, politicos, and cable news producers bookmark the page, sign up for email alerts, and then screenshot his every new missive and post them straight to Twitter.
I’m not even sure that this is the reason Trump and his team built this garbage website. I don’t necessarily think he’s playing 12-D chess but that doesn’t matter if the rest of us take the bait. And it will be so, so easy to take the bait. I saw it today: The mere mention of Trump’s garbage Twitter clone evoked some vintage rageshare engagement (2009-2021, RIP). People love to get mad online about Donald Trump! But this engagement is a trap. And I think it’s worth considering whether or not we want to walk into it for a second time.
I am well-acquainted with the counter-arguments. Donald Trump is the front-runner for the 2024 nomination. He is the most important person in Republican politics. What he says and does matters. Like it or not, his every action is newsworthy. Liberals ignoring Donald Trump are deluding themselves when basically half the country would vote for him tomorrow.
Valid points! But I disagree, especially on the premise of newsworthiness. I’m a broken record on this but I fundamentally believe that blanket claims of ‘newsworthiness!’ are an excuse that news organizations use. Newsworthiness is a choice masquerading as an inevitability. There is no Hippocratic Oath for journalism that suggests we must amplify lies or provide our most shameless politicians with an endless supply of attention. And, as I wrote last week, this newsworthiness loophole logic is the exact thing that the tech platforms used to justify Donald Trump’s prolonged existence on the website. I think this passage from Renee DiResta and Matt DeButts gets at not only the circular logic here but also the danger this thinking can create:
Underlying the board’s decision-making is an uncomfortable truth: the “harm” that Facebook worries about—the same harm they now cite to justify Trump’s removal—was made possible because of the company’s own circular concept of newsworthiness. Trump’s midnight tweets and Facebook posts, which went viral via social media’s affordances and algorithms, generated headlines in the mainstream press; the press coverage, reinforcing the material’s newsworthiness, then permitted Facebook to exempt Trump’s posts from moderation. The terminus of this loop, as we know, was the Capitol insurrection, which led to the deaths of five people.
I’m not suggesting that Trump needs to enter ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’ territory. He was the president and what he does when he’s not holding random Mar-a-Lago weddings hostage with his Big Lie speech may very well be of public interest (within reason). But amplifying him out of some duty to stenographic journalism is a sucker’s game. The only way to win is not to play.
A random thought about Tucker Carlson
Continuing on a theme. This is a chyron from Tucker’s show last night:
This is quite an image. Which is the point. What I mean is that it is perfectly sharable across social media, either as a clip or as a still image. If you love Tucker, I’m sure whatever monologue accompanies these chyrons and graphics is solid Facebook rage bait. But it also works wonderfully for Tucker’s enemies. The chyron is blunt to the extent that it is basically absurdist. The same goes with the CIA graphic, which is actually reminiscent of a Daily Show or Colbert Report over-the-shoulder image. It is patently ridiculous — what it might look like if Stormfront wrote an episode of Weekend Update.
As my former colleague Joe Bernstein pointed out on Twitter last night, it’s possible Tucker learned from these templates (also, the fact that people don’t remember this moment makes me feel old as dirt):
Tucker is playing the ratings game first and foremost but it also feels like these things are engineered for the internet audience and the hate shares. Just like Tucker’s incredulous facial expressions, it is hard to take your eyes off of it. Given the millions that tune in, we probably can’t ignore his influence, but it also feels like anyone who is sharing these clips in outrage is playing into his hands.
Ok! That’s it for today. If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version, and come hang out with us on Sidechannel. Right now we’re talking about ‘the best thing you saw online today’ as well as the way that online parasocial relationships distort reality. Come hang!
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