Twitter put up with a lot from Donald Trump. His greatest hits included birtherism, conspiracy theories, harassment, incitement and lies — behavior that would have led the platform to cite, suspend or ban most users for violating its terms of service. As a public figure, though, Twitter let him get away with just about anything, profiting along the way from the attention his daily outrages generated.
But not anymore: as of Friday Jan. 8th, Donald J. Trump could no longer tweet. While Democrats, and many Republicans, may enjoy the silence, how should political professionals treat this moment? With Twitter’s most prominent public figure gone, should they look at how much they and their clients put into it? Without Trump, does political Twitter still matter?
Four years ago, it was already clear that Trump had changed the way Twitter worked in politics in fundamental ways. He fought his most public battles in bite-sized bits, conducting foreign relations, announcing public policy and programming the content of cable news shows straight from his phone.
Other political actors had to respond in kind, particularly since reporters quoted and embedded his tweets in virtually every story that touched on him or his presidency. By 2021, political press coverage has come to rely on Twitter for content at least as much as on official statements and press conferences.
The Trump Twitter ban changes that dynamic, at least in that it removes the loudest voice in the room. But I don’t think others should abandon ship just yet. For one thing, Twitter remains a powerful tool for political and social organizing.
Some critics deride “hashtag activism,” but movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter depended on the fact that Twitter provided a public space for people to come together around issues that directly affected or reflected their own lives. QAnon may have accompanied Trump into the social media wilderness, but most other political movements are still free to reach supporters 280 characters at a time.
Likewise, Trump relied on Twitter’s direct line to the public mind more than anyone before him, but he was far from the first political candidate to use it to shape the political conversation. Back in 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s campaigns regularly dueled via tweet, for example, with reporters and the rest of the chattering class the intended audience.
And though journalists and bloggers don’t have new Trump tweets to cite anymore, they aren’t exactly dropping off the platform themselves. They still embed other politicians’ posts in their stories as a matter of course, and if anything, Trump’s departure may open space for other voices to get some attention for a change.
Social media platforms constantly evolve, and Twitter’s own role in our political system will naturally shift over time. Early in 2021, even Facebook’s future as a tool for political outreach seems at least somewhat in doubt. I suspect that Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to cut back on political content may spark a rare bipartisan backlash, though, since these companies have carved up too much of the public square for themselves to completely abdicate the responsibilities that come with it, much as they may try.
Similarly, Twitter remains an indispensable communications tool for almost anyone who wants to influence the public conversation around politics — or to take part in it. In other words, don’t follow Trump into exile just yet.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2021 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.