Trump has, in a way, sped things up
A talk with Prof. Christoph Bieber about the US electoral system, a divided media sphere and the prospects of right-wing extremism on social media
Andrew Costigan:I’d like to begin with a prompt in the form of a quotation that you gave in the Westfalen Spiegel, where you assert that, 'Trump’s reaction is not surprising.'
Prof. Christoph Bieber: I started covering the Trump presidency back in 2016 together with my colleague Klaus Kamps, and we thought at that point that there might be some time that the mandate would get hold of Donald Trump and transform the way he conceives the presidency as some kind of personal job—but that didn’t happen. It took maybe half a year, until we stopped waiting for the moment he would start to behave like a regular politician. Instead, he even added more and more damage to the political stage in Washington, D.C.; he kept hiring and firing his aides, he tried to obstruct and destruct the work of specific departments and he was everything but productive for the political capital of the US and maybe even the world.
Towards the end of his presidency, after four long years we had to learn about the pandemic, and saw Trump mishandling the entire Covid-operation. This added up to a very difficult situation during the last months before the election. Everything fell into place during that time, if you will. The stolen vote narrative was already there half a year before the election. He kept repeating it, and still denies what has happened at the ballot boxes. So no, it was not surprising.
Andrew Costigan: There has been an acceleration of Trump’s social media practices, including his use of Twitter. The platform has begun tagging his posts as containing misinformation just over the last few months. Where was that kind of control before now?
Prof. Christoph Bieber: You could also ask where was this kind of control four or eight years ago. Twitter didn’t do anything to posts from other politicians or any dubious news outlets before Trump. It is only a recent development that Twitter and, to some extent, Facebook, are trying to engage in electoral content moderation. This process slowly emerged after the 2016 election when it became clear that Trump had considerable success in using Twitter as his primary outlet to spread misinformation for his own benefit. After the Cambridge Analytica Scandal broke in 2018, the companies could have tested some of those moderating techniques during the midterms later that year. But only since 2020 it became a more heated argument between Washington, D.C. and the Silicon Valley companies, when Trump started to meddle with their harsher reactions to what he was posting. As there is no precedent, we’re not sure if and how those moderating efforts helped. Yes, they flagged some of the controversial Tweets that Trump sent out, but we don’t know what will the platforms do after the election. They will perhaps challenge dangerous or misinformative content, but we don’t know how long they will maintain this operation because it’s costly and technically difficult. We only can assume that content moderation will have an impact on the political public sphere – and that there´s a need for political regulation of online communication.
By the way: Barack Obama also circumvented traditional media outlets by using digital platforms, but of course he had a completely different style of messaging, of reaching out to the public. If you asked members of the Washington press corps at that time, they would also have had some reasons of critique. Obama played the social game very well. With his team, he produced a lot of quasi-journalistic content. There was his court photographer, who always had the best shots for any situation, and put them on display via the White House website, on Facebook, or Twitter. Since long, there has been a struggle between the White House and Washington journalists – but in the Obama years that was different from the situation with Donald Trump, who was totally biased towards friendly outlets like Fox News and he denied discussions with ‘real’ journalists. Now, there is a much harsher tone and a more dangerous situation with Trump in the White House holding up the “stolen election”-narrative. One must hope that digital platforms stick to their decisions to moderate political content until Trump has left the building.
Andrew Costigan: Trump has attacked traditional media on at least two fronts, on the one hand downplaying the true value of certain networks and on the other expressing these criticisms in large part on social media. What is the role of these platforms when it comes to moderation, and what is your perspective on the ethical dimension behind using these platforms in modern politics?
Prof. Christoph Bieber: You would assume that something has to happen, not only considering the social media platforms but with the media system in the US as a whole. Looking at the US from a European perspective, you learn to appreciate a public media system that can be held responsible for reporting in a neutral, non-biased way – and even here this is disputed by a small group. But it is a huge difference to the US where the media environment is completely market-driven – and that´s also true when it comes to political news media. They act as aggressive entities, and they have decided to get their share of this huge market by favoring one ideological perspective over the other. And now, the digital platforms have entered the market, too. They have to compete with each other but also with the traditional media outlets to get outreach and, in the end, generate profit.
When you have a clearly divided media sphere, the networks have to decide which side they are on. On the conservative end there are Fox News, One America News Network and Breitbart, and a lot of talk radio hosts. On the progressive end you will find CNN, or MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The digital platforms are also actors on this market and they seem not to be aligned with the idea of the political public sphere as an important space for the exchange of arguments within the political system. Maybe the last four years helped to start a process of critical self-reflection.
Andrew Costigan: There is some debate about the role of platform and a responsibility for the public discourse in the US. What makes these platforms different?
Professor Christoph Bieber: What we have seen in the US in the last couple of years was a strict polarisation of this public sphere from an ideological perspective—you are either republican-leaning or democratic-leaning as a media company, and then your programs are structured with your own share of the audience in mind. This does not create a healthy political discourse crossing the gap between the democratic- and the republican-leaning parts of the US. The digital platforms can act differently; there is no clear division because they don’t provide linear formats like the TV outlets or the talk radio. They stick to the view that they are acting as a platform, and they don’t seem to care what happens there—they’re just enablers.
Beginning in 2016, ideas of more strict regulation and of holding those companies accountable for what’s happening on their platforms broke ground in Washington. There has been a more politically heated discussion between D.C. and Silicon Valley. We’ve seen during the last couple of months the experiments of electoral content moderation as an attempt to improve political discourse online. This additional transparency was the beginning of a process of reflecting the role those digital platforms have in a more complex, diverse, and networked public sphere. Trump has, in a way, sped things up. Lots of these problems became much clearer since he has been at the helm in the White House, tweeting like hell.
Basically, I think there are two ways the situation could be improved. There could be regulation from Washington, that would require consent across party lines, which is difficult to achieve, especially in these times. The other option might be new forms of self-regulation, set into place by the platforms themselves. It’s a mix of being transparent, showing what kind of mechanisms are in place, and creating new mechanisms of internal self-regulation at a time when those companies are still evolving. This is really difficult and I think it depends a lot on the personal ideals and values of the people in charge of the platforms.
Andrew Costigan: I think the public will to want to see how the moderation process works because these platforms are so massive. In your view, how should the platforms actually be moderated?
Prof. Christoph Bieber: I think that what is clear is that it can’t be moderated by hand, you will have to put some kind of algorithmic monitoring system in place that at least does some filtering and prepares humans to better decide. There are also ethical issues in designing and implementing such technology – and this would also be something that should be made visible to the outside world. While you can see some dynamics and new developments inside the companies, you might also have to ask whether this is something like “ethicswashing.” They might form, for example, an internal commission, that they called on some experts for communication, data or maybe ethical algorithm development. That’s a first step, but it’s probably not enough; it depends very much on the extent to which the governing board of Facebook or Twitter is able and willing to act transparently when engaging in an open discussion process. They have to realise and to embrace the responsibility they face when delivering such platforms to the public.
Andrew Costigan: We’ve seen the immense impact that social media can have on mobilisation of fringe political movements. In a recent discussion moderated by Christopher Smith Ochoa, you had an exchange about future of right-wing extremism in America. Can you elaborate a little on that exchange? How do you see the future of militia groups like the Proud Boys?
Prof. Christoph Bieber: Right now we still don’t know how big these movements are. We do know that there are militia groups, but we do not know how many of them are out there and where. But I think Christopher’s main point of reference was the term ‘Trumpism,’ as a concept for a new form of right-wing extremism fueled by excessive media usage, both traditional and social. Yet, is there such a thing like Trumpism? Do republican politicians really act like Trump? Can and will they really do that? I don’t believe that one just turns into some kind of mini-Trump, then wins an election bid and heads into leading government. I’d guess that this is a very special situation caused by very special individual that is doing things in the White House that some consider to be politics – but maybe it’s just Trump being Trump. Some of those republicans that came into office during this election while mimicking some of the moves that Donald Trump showed off, they will realise that this is not a very good way to act as politicians—but maybe I’m a bit too optimistic in this view.
New office holders in the “Trumposphere” bring other ideas and other personalities into politics and they don’t necessarily have to be good, but I don’t think they are as bad and as harmful as what Trump has done to the White House. But of course there are exceptions: nobody would have needed a house republican promoting ideas provided by QAnon. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is really something like ready-to-use concept of ‘Trumpism’ that can be easily copied and pasted into political strategies all over the country. I would hope that when Trump and his minions leave the White House things calm down – and that it might be possible for the GOP to return to normalcy. Indeed it would be helpful to see the republican elite turning away from Trump and not helping him to further undermine the integrity of the electoral process. You never know though—there are rumours of Trump running again in 2024. I think that is very much tied to Donald Trump, or the person he will become after leaving the White House. Let’s hope that he finds an exit strategy or that his family will lead him to the door at 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue so that there finally can be a peaceful and productive transition to the next President of the United States.
Andrew Costigan: Dear Professor Bieber, thank you very much for this discussion.