Events overnight in Minneapolis ran ahead of my ability to keep track. It meant that when I sat down this morning to write a piece about them, I was faced by a staggering number of facts, details, and narrative threads that I struggled to contain within a simple linear argument.
The insanely quick news cycle has become been one of the chief struggles of writing about the Trump presidency. There are just so many angles to tackle it from that it is sometimes impossible to give the priority to any single one.
The story of George Floyd is, of course, a tragic one. It is both small and personal, yet it is also huge and all encompassing. The moral need to address the former is always challenged by the excitement you feel intellectually to set it within a larger context. So, it isn’t just the story of one man killed because of police violence. It’s the story of the police encouraged to use violence by a president who displays worrying affinity for authoritarian rule. It is also, naturally, about the experience of black America and the unequal justice afforded to them.
It means, on the one hand, there’s a story about today in America but also about tomorrow, not just in the US but everywhere populism has taken root. The sight of the burning buildings is a shock but, for me, the thing that literally caused me to tumble out of bed at too early an hour because I needed to write about it, was the sight of Twitter actively hiding one of the President’s tweets. Of course, viewed one way, it’s trivial compared to the death of a man. Yet viewed another, it’s talismanic. The liberal – and I would say enlightened – world that Trump has exploited to spread his illiberal views is finally taking a stand against him.
I might be wrong, but I can’t help but think this story is huge and will play out across the coming US election but also in the years ahead. I know I constantly bang on about enlightenment values and the need to protect science but there’s no fight, except for the environmental one, that’s as important. In fact, I think the climate change argument is the very same argument. It begins with the right to free speech, which as executives are Twitter are finally realising, is not the same as an obligation to publish any non-factual nonsense. Certainly, it doesn’t amount to a compulsion that others should read it or listen to it. Twitter have finally taken a stand and I think it’s sensible that they have done so.
Facebook, I notice, have already taken the other side of the argument. This fight will be painted in black and white. Twitter will become the bad guys for “censoring” Trump and Zuckerberg will claim to be a martyr fighting for individual freedoms. The reality is that Zuckerberg is making a financial decision because monitoring what people post would be enormously expensive, even if done via algorithm. He also earns a load from publishing adverts from anybody with cash to burn.
I’m not sure how much longer he can sustain that model. There has to come a point where we recognise that much of the harm being done in the world is done because of the consequence-free world of social media. The harm being done, often by automated bots controlled by bad actors, is simply immense. It might be the case that I can’t see a bigger picture but from where I sit, today, with Minneapolis burning, CNN journalists being arrested, and Trump challenging new media for his right to spread lies, I’m firmly on the side of Twitter. The President has even signed an Executive Order which demands that the Justice Department strip the protection afforded to social media companies, that limits the legal exposure to the kind of awful content posted on their platform. I’m fairly certain the Executive Order is worthless. As I say, I’m sure that a watertight legal argument could be made that free speech extends to the right to a platform owner to moderate what they publish on their platform.
What’s happening in Minneapolis this week might be another dark moment for America but it is also a manifestation of those many hidden but malignant forces at work in America systems of law, politics, and media. Justice badly served is like freedom poorly expressed. Trump defends both and I believe that even loyal Republicans are finally beginning to recognise that. The tide is rapidly turning against the mad man in the White House.