If Trump’s new social network survives its disastrous announcement, it could be a genuine threat to democracy

That the name of his new site translates to ‘Pravda’ is probably lost on the former president, but the authoritarian appeal of his very own network is obvious

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Thursday 21 October 2021 17:00
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<p>TRUTH Social is Donald Trump’s new social network</p>

TRUTH Social is Donald Trump’s new social network

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Donald Trump announced plans for a new social media website, Truth Social, on Thursday. The former president said Truth Social would “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech.” In fact, however, Truth Social is part of Trump’s ongoing efforts to co-opt and control the media, undermine democracy, and seize authoritarian power.

Twitter and Facebook banned Trump from their networks after it became clear he was spreading election disinformation, and after he directly used social media to cheer on and encourage the right-wing coup attempt on 6 January. Trump, right-wing media, and even the ACLU argued that banning the outgoing president was an infringement of his free speech, and Trump himself is still banging that drum today. “We live in a world where the Taliban has a huge presence on Twitter, yet your favorite American president has been silenced,” he said in his announcement of the new network.

In this framing, Truth Social is a scrappy underdog fighting for the speech of the powerless against the blacklisting of the powerful. A president isn’t ever an underdog though. The First Amendment is not intended to protect the president of the United States from press censorship; it is designed to protect the press from interference by the government.

Twitter and Facebook are private media companies with terms of service. Like newspapers or magazines, they publish content in line with their editorial goals and vision. Often those goals are immoral and harmful, and of course they can and should be debated in the public sphere. But there is no moral principle that says that media companies have to print everything the president says unedited and without commentary. In fact, forcing media companies to give the president unedited, unfettered carte blanche to spew lies and propaganda is a clear violation of freedom of speech.

The press is not obliged to say what the president tells it to, or to let the president use its infrastructure and audience to advance his own goals. The New York Times is not obligated to make the president a regular op-ed writer; CNN is not required to broadcast every word the president says without filter or commentary. To argue otherwise is to vitiate freedom of speech and turn the press into the president’s lapdog.

By banning Trump, Twitter and Facebook were asserting press independence from presidential control. Truth Social is designed to challenge and erode that independence. The site is of course openly political, like many media outlets. But it is also specifically associated with, and marketed as, a megaphone for Trump.

Trump is not currently president, despite some of his supporters’ confused claims to the contrary. However, he is signaling that he is likely to stand again as the Republican nominee in 2024, and he is effectively running a permanent campaign.

Right-wing media like Fox can be counted on for hagiographic boosterism of any Republican president. But even Fox hasn’t been sufficiently hagiographic and boosterish for Trump, who was enraged by their admission that Biden won the 2020 election. Trump doesn’t want media supporters, but media factotums. That was the appeal of twitter, where he could just tweet directly to followers, with no editorial interference—at least for a while.

Truth Social is intended to give Trump the utterly supine media outlet he craves. Though the launch page promises “an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology,” their terms of service paint a different picture. Users are not allowed to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.”

In other words, people on Truth Social can’t mock Truth Social. Given Trump’s close association with the site, it’s easy to imagine the site construing this rule broadly and preventing any criticism of the former president. And what if Trump becomes president again while he is the de facto head of a social media company? Would he use the regulatory power of the state to try to put his competitors out of business?

This is all assuming that Truth Social ever actually gets off the ground. Like many a Trump venture, this one appears to be more hype than substance. No CEO has yet been named, and it’s far from clear that the company will ever actually offer a usable product. Though the project is supposed to be in Beta and not open to the public, several people managed to log in and create fake Donald Trump and Mike Pence accounts. That doesn’t bode well for the platform’s security or professionalism.

But Trump’s typical incompetence shouldn’t blind us to the implications of his typical and frightening efforts to undermine democracy. Barring a future President Trump declaring Facebook and Twitter illegal, Truth Social is very unlikely to challenge other large scale social media platforms for market share. But Trump’s vision of a social media Pravda (which literally translates to “truth”) should worry everyone who believes an independent press is a vital brake on government power.

Right now, Truth Social is a joke. But Trump was a joke once too. Democracy can’t withstand too many more such punchlines.

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