Trump’s Executive Order Isn’t About Twitter - The Atlantic
Par Zeynep Tufekci
In reality, Trump’s salvo on social-media companies has primarily an audience of one: Mark Zuckerberg. And it is already working. After the executive order was issued, Facebook’s CEO quickly gave an interview to Fox News in which he said, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” He added, “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
It’s important to pay attention to what the president is doing, but not because the legal details of this order matter at all. Trump is unlikely to repeal Section 230 or take any real action to curb the power of the major social-media companies. Instead, he wants to keep things just the way they are and make sure that the red-carpet treatment he has received so far, especially at Facebook, continues without impediment. He definitely does not want substantial changes going into the 2020 election. The secondary aim is to rile up his base against yet another alleged enemy: this time Silicon Valley, because there needs to be an endless list of targets in the midst of multiple failures.
Trump does very well on Facebook, as my colleagues Ian Bogost and Alexis Madrigal have written, because “his campaign has been willing to cede control to Facebook’s ad-buying machinery”—both now, and in 2016. The relationship is so smooth that Trump said Zuckerberg congratulated the president for being “No. 1 on Facebook” at a private dinner with him. Bloomberg has reported that Facebook’s own data-science team agreed, publishing an internal report concluding how much better Trump was in leveraging “Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.” This isn’t an unusual move for Facebook and its clients. Bloomberg has reported that Facebook also offered its “white glove” services to the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, to help him “maximize the platform’s potential and use best practices.” Duterte dominated political conversation on the site the month before the Philippines’ May 2016 presidential election. And once elected, Duterte banned independent press from attending his inauguration, instead live-streaming it on Facebook—a win-win for the company, which could then collect data from and serve ads to the millions who had little choice but to turn to the site if they wanted to see their president take office. (Duterte has since been accused of extrajudicial killings, jailing political opponents, and targeting independent media.)
Playing the refs by browbeating them has long been a key move in the right-wing playbook against traditional media. The method is simple: It involves badgering them with accusations of unfairness and bias so that they bend over backwards to accommodate a “both sides” narrative even when the sides were behaving very differently, or when one side was not grounded in fact. Climate-change deniers funded by fossil-fuel companies effectively used this strategy for decades, relying on journalists’ training and instinct to equate objectivity with representing both sides of a story. This way of operating persisted even when one of the sides was mostly bankrolled by the fossil-fuel industry while the other was a near-unanimous consensus of independent experts and academics.
For Facebook, that gatekeeper is a single person, Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s young CEO is an emperor of information who decides rules of amplification and access to speech for billions of people, simply due to the way ownership of Facebook shares are structured: Zuckerberg personally controls 60 percent of the voting power. And just like the way people try to get on or advertise on the president’s seemingly favorite TV show, Fox & Friends, merely to reach him, Trump is clearly aiming to send a message to his one-person target.
As a consequence, Facebook became cautious of taking actions that would make it look like it was holding back right-wing information machinery. That was the environment in which the country headed into the 2016 election—five months during which all stripes of misinformation went easily viral on Facebook, including stories that falsely claimed that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump, or that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to the Islamic State. These stories were viewed millions of times on the platform, many of them outperforming traditional news sources. The pressure to keep Facebook friendly to the Trump campaign continued unabated after the election. When Facebook appeared to be considering changes to its microtargeting rules in 2019—for example, not allowing political campaigns to use the same level of microtargeting tools that product advertisers can, a potential strike at “a major Trump ad strategy”—the Trump reelection campaign swiftly attacked the platform, and the rules were left unchanged.
Silicon Valley engineers and employees may well be overwhelmingly liberal, but Facebook is run by the algorithms they program, which optimize for the way the site makes money, rather than sifting through posts one by one. This is probably why the trending-topics controversy seemed like such a big hit: It took the one tiny section where humans had some minor input and portrayed the whole platform as working the same way. The employees may be liberal, but the consequences of how social-media companies operate are anything but. In 2016, for example, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all “embedded” staffers with both campaigns, without charge, helping them use the sites better and get more out of the many millions of dollars they spent on the platforms. However, this was especially helpful to the Trump campaign, an upstart with a bare-bones staff. Unsurprisingly, the “bulk of Silicon Valley’s hands-on campaign support went to Trump rather than to Clinton.”
Trump and his campaign understood the power of Facebook better than the Clinton campaign, and formed a mutually beneficial relationship. Trump spent $44 million on the site, compared with the Clinton campaign’s $28 million, but ad money is only part of the story. A key role of Facebook is promoting organic content: posts, not ads, written by people who may range from partisans to campaign operatives to opportunists who just want the clicks. Some of the authors of these viral pages are motivated by promoting their ideology. Others are just grifters, using Facebook to maximize their spread so that they can collect ad money from their own webpage—which probably uses Google’s industry-dominating ad infrastructure. It’s a complete circle of back-scratching that is rarely commented on or known outside of a small number of experts and industry practitioners.
The Trump campaign also made better use of Facebook’s own artificial-intelligence tools, like “lookalike audiences”—a crucial functionality that lets advertisers find many new people that Facebook predicts will act similarly to a small “custom” audience uploaded to the site. In other words, if you upload a list of a few thousand people who are open to your message, whether it is interest in a harmless hobby or incendiary claims against a political opponent, Facebook’s vast surveillance machinery, giant databases, and top-of-the line artificial-intelligence tools can help you find many, many more similar targets—which you can reach as long as you’re willing to pay Facebook. These are the kinds of advanced functions that Facebook makes easy to use, and staffers embedded with the Trump campaign would be able to explain and help with.