Hey, Twitter, Are You Sure About This?

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For a half-century, the trend in political culture has been inexorably in one direction: toward the steady loosening and eventually the near-obliteration of media filters.

If someone has a voice that other people want to hear, that voice is going to be heard. No smug editor at the New York Times or damn anchorman at CBS News is going to get in the way. Who the hell elected them, after all, to decide what points of view were worthy of dissemination, what facts or rumors or even flat falsehoods should reach average citizens, who could decide for themselves what to make of it?

The erosion of traditional establishment filters — first by such mediums as direct mail, talk radio and cable, later and most powerfully by social media — has been a primary factor in the rise of potent ideological movements on right and left alike.

It is why the election and bizarre presidency of an insurgent disruptor like Donald J. Trump — inconceivable in the 20th century era of establishment media—was eminently conceivable in this era.

And it is why the decision Friday night by Twitter to permanently ban Trump from its platform is a signal moment — a historic move, even before we know the consequences that will flow from it.

It represents an effort to reassert the notion that filters have a place in political communication and that some voices have lost their claim on public legitimacy — even when that voice has 89 million followers and is just two months past receiving the second-highest number of votes in U.S. election history.

Twitter’s announcement was made with a righteous air, as the company said it was acting “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” after Trump’s raucous lies about a stolen election inspired backers to take over the Capitol on Wednesday. Across a wide spectrum of politicians and commentators, there were exultations of relief, many mingled with it’s-about-time exasperation.

Twitter’s move is plainly an effort to act responsibly in the face of Trump’s irresponsible words and actions.

Even so, the question seems unavoidable: Are you sure about this?

In strictly political terms, it could well give buoyancy to Trump and his supporters — a new cause for the grievance that fuels them. The moves comes at precisely the moment that his movement looked like it had been fatally punctured, due to the cumulative effects of Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, Democrats winning the Senate in Georgia special elections and even once-loyal Trump Republicans expressing disgust with his culpability in Wednesday’s insurrection.

In a way, Twitter’s move highlights the essential conundrum of the Age of Trump. His pathetic braying about a “stolen election” shows contempt for democracy. But he is a force to be reckoned with — the only reason it is worth banning his account in the first place — because he has scores of millions of people who believe deeply in him. His attack on democracy is also a perverse expression of democracy.

In historical terms, Twitter is swimming — possibly with limp strokes — against currents that have come to define not only contemporary politics but the broader culture as well. Perhaps Twitter feels its gesture is sufficiently resonant, and its influence in public discourse so central, that it can change those currents. Quite the feat, if so.

One way to understand those currents is to go back to November 13, 1969 — seven years before Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was born. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president, traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to speak to a meeting of Midwestern Republicans and deliver a scathing denunciation of television network news.

Agnew, in words written with the help of Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, alleged that the new administration was hobbled by biased reporting and complained, “A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official or the wisdom of a government policy.”

He concluded by urging ordinary citizens to question “a small and unelected elite” in the news business.

Whatever one makes of Agnew — he resigned the vice presidency as part of a plea bargain after it turned out he had been taking cash bribes since his days in Maryland politics — he was not far off in his description of a small and unelected elite.

In those days the group of people — almost exclusively white men living in New York and Washington — with the greatest influence on shaping what the vast majority of Americans learned about national government and politics could be listed by name on the sheet of a legal pad. Count the anchor, executive producer, and Washington bureau chief of the three broadcast networks. Throw in a dozen of the most important people at the New York Times and Washington Post, and maybe a dozen more from important regional papers. And don’t forget the editors and bureau chiefs of what were then three hugely influential weekly news magazines. And that’s about it.

That’s what you call a filter.

If there is any unifying thread of the conservative movement from Nixon to Rush Limbaugh to Matt Drudge to Newt Gingrich to Trump, it is its resentment of the establishment news media and determination to make its filters obsolete.

More recently, the left has offered its own variation on the same theme — building a movement by both denouncing the alleged timidity and conformist spirit of establishment media and exploiting the digital revolution to build its own communications channels.

Simply put, there is no “small, unelected elite” with real power any more. As a result, American politics became vastly more egalitarian, and vastly more congenial to diverse perspectives. It has also become vastly more demagogic, more unruly, more steeped in malice and conspiracy theory.

Can the pendulum ever swing back? It’s notable that 18 months ago, then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris endorsed a Twitter ban on Trump and scolded Joe Biden for not joining her in the effort. At the time this was largely, and perhaps accurately, dismissed as a campaign stunt, but if so it did nothing to lift her. Now Harris is seeing her idea get tested 11 days before she and Biden get sworn in together.

Another paradox: The extreme democratizing of discourse represented by Twitter has also been marked by the very concentration of power in social media that existed in Agnew’s time. Who the hell elected Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg?

If the new era of right-wing grievance, and no small amount of left-wing grievance, led to a proliferation of outlets beyond the behemoths of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, that might also serve democracy.

For now, it’s hard to be too censorious of Twitter for being censorious of tweets from a politician unhinged from truth and heedless of life-and-death consequences. But it’s easy to be skeptical that the effect will be as they wish. In this era, everyone in the audience serves as their own filter. A media platform is every bit as responsible and irresponsible — an endless sea of both — as the people who consume its content.

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