There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. — Oscar Wilde
After about five weeks on Twitter, I realized the feed was making me nuts.
I had followed people I liked, mostly political and media figures. A few people (very few, as it happens) followed me. I followed more people. I clicked like. I tweeted and retweeted and commented. I got followed by strangers, mostly bots or trolls or people with something to sell, and blocked them.
So I did a reset. I stopped following — unfollowed — everyone. I deleted some of my tweets and retweets. I built a much smaller list of people to follow.
And the Twitter feed was still maddening.
No, it’s not because people weren’t talking about me. It’s because what they were talking about, incessantly, was Donald Trump.
I blamed @realDonaldTrump.
So, I blocked him.
My Twitter feed got better. A lot better. Things improved enough that I could finally see the problem for what it is. As awful as Trump’s tweets are — and they are bad — they are merely the messages. What makes Trump’s tweets so pernicious is the delivery system: the messengers — Trump’s Twitter followers.
As of this writing, @realDonaldTrump has 59.7 MILLION Twitter followers.
That’s 59.7 million Twitter users who signed up to read any utterance that makes its way from the very stable genius to a smart phone and around the world in an instant. Read, retweet, comment, repeat.
There is no way for an ordinary person to know how many of Trump’s Twitter followers voted for him or consider themselves Trump supporters. Journalists, politicians, and millions of non-supporters follow the president’s Twitter account because of the office, not the person in it. Many openly criticize Trump. They stand in opposition to much of what he stands for. Yet they — we — regularly retweet and comment on his tweets.
How many of those comments and retweets are, in turn, commented upon and retweeted? We see a response we like and retweet it, often along with the original tweet or a quote from it. This is the nature of a social media echo chamber.
Twitter users are being used to amplify and distribute messages even if they disagree with them.
How bad is this problem? If you’re on Twitter, look around you. Look at your feed. Look at the news and opinion sources you follow online, on cable, over the airwaves or in print. Trump’s tweets are everywhere.
Sean Spicer, when asked in June 2017 if Trump’s tweets were considered official statements, answered “The president is president of the United States, so they are considered official statements by the president of the United States.”
Who has the ability to send a tweet that is supposedly an official communication from the president of the United States? What if the sender of a @realDonaldTrump tweet is not really Donald Trump? Who else has access to Trump’s Twitter account and how do we know for certain who is talking?
These are not merely hypothetical questions. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, claimed in December 2017 that he, not the President, had dictated a tweet that said Trump “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” Who really authored the tweet and who sent it?
In other words, Trump’s Twitter followers may be reading and repeating the work of a ghost writer.
Or, potentially, a hacker.
What if Trump’s phone or Twitter account gets hacked? They must be among the most high profile hacking targets on the planet. A Chinese national was arrested last month after allegedly lying her way into Mar-a-Lago while toting a bunch of electronics gear. Was she a spy? We must assume that people are trying to hack the Donald’s accounts.
There was a hope at one time, however naive, that social media companies might stop the president of the United States from abusing their services. There are terms of service, after all, which supposedly govern what users can and cannot do. The Twitter Rules, for example, explicitly state “You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.”
What about tweeting incendiary comments and videos about, well, virtually anyone? Or threatening an entire country with nuclear annihilation, as Trump did in January 2018 when he tweeted about his bigger and more powerful nuclear button? Twitter does not enforce its terms of service where Trump is concerned. The company pays lip service to the idea of labeling tweets that violate the terms, and it does remove disputed content (such as Trump’s new campaign ad, which allegedly used copyrighted material without permission), but Trump is still tweeting at will.
The system is being gamed. We are being played and we have to stop playing along. We are being used to promote someone else’s narrative and distract from issues which urgently need attention. We are wearing ourselves and each other out, trying to get the most likes and retweets, and carrying water for someone else in the process.
Last Sunday, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg* appeared on Meet the Press and encouraged Americans to “envision the world as it’ll be in 2054… and just change the channel from this mesmerizing horror show that’s going on in Washington right now.”
Indeed, we need to change the channel. Stop following Trump’s tweets; ignore them. Twitter will not disable Trump’s account, but there is no reason any individual cannot block it. Block @realDonaldTrump. Block the accounts of his promoters and enablers. We need to stop paying so much attention to those folks and stop talking about them all the time.
Let them know what Oscar Wilde meant.
*Buttigieg is expected to formally announce his candidacy for president on Sunday April 14 in South Bend.