“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” is the advice local politicians used to give their young protégés. It was sound counsel back in the day when daily metro newspapers were most Americans’ window to their community and the world. While the technology of communication has changed substantially since the 1960s when the phrase was purportedly originated, the concept behind the quote is still true today.
The news this week that ex-president Donald Trump has decided to delete his rudimentary “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” personal blog is a great reminder that while technology changes, some things never do.
For centuries, reaching out to a massive audience was, well, massively expensive. The costs of paper, ink, and printing presses were so high that people who owned them were loath to print anything that couldn’t pay for itself, or at least be useful in swaying millions of people’s opinions. Aspiring authors had to have the cash on hand themselves or a way to raise it if they wanted something printed and widely distributed.
Writing books was also a lot more of a personal effort before the invention of the word processor. Organizing one’s ideas into a book-length argument was a tremendous task, just as difficult in many ways as setting the type for a newspaper or magazine. Producing films and broadcasts was even more expensive and time-consuming.
The high barrier to entry for reaching mass audiences shut out many voices. Historians today are perpetually uncovering important stories about women, lower-income people, and racial and sexual minorities that were never told due to lack of interest from the people who had the money to tell them when they were current.
Among the marginalized voices, however, were people who deserved to be marginalized—political and religious activists with extremist opinions and shady business owners continually on the hunt for marks, to name a few.
The advent of social media or Web 2.0 as it was once called changed all this. For the first time in history, people with deranged and delusional viewpoints no longer had to expend the effort and money to reach a large audience. They were handed free tools to do so by smart people who originally just wanted to “connect the world,” as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said for many years.
The moment in which we’re all living is literally the first time in human history that anything remotely similar to this has ever been attempted. In this “Information Age,” any number of unhinged people now have the ability to produce the most valuable commodity in our society: information.
While it’s certainly true that the expansion of web publishing has enabled many new voices who deserve to be heard, the greed of social media companies has made it so that the most angry and conspiratorial voices are the ones promoted the most in networks’ endless pursuit of increasing user time on site.
The net result of the decisions made by Zuckerberg and his ilk has been a fountain of hatred and disinformation which they have directly subsidized and supported over the objections of more ethical employees.
It’s undeniable that the political career of Donald Trump was dependent on the networks built by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others. At his peak, Trump had close to 90 million Twitter followers and over 35 million Facebook fans. Without the power and reach of these platforms, it would have been exceedingly difficult for a frequently bankrupt real estate investor whose sole skill is insult comedy to become president.
After he was banned by all major social platforms in the wake of setting off the January 6 insurrection, Trump vowed to create his own network to which his supporters could flock to bask in the petty insults and misspellings of their great leader.
“This is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media,” the ex-president’s slimy communications adviser Jason Miller predicted in March, claiming the future site would reach “tens of millions of people.”
But like so many of Trump’s other business projects, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” was a dismal failure. Touted originally by Miller and other sycophants as a social network that would redefine politics, it launched on May 4 as nothing more than a very basic blog, bereft of many features. Readers couldn’t post comments or register for profiles. The site’s “like” buttons did nothing more than change to a different color when clicked. The former president’s tech team was further mocked for calling the blog a “beacon of freedom” in a hastily released launch video.
The Washington Post made things worse for Trump’s ego when it disclosed in late May that the site had almost no engagement on real social media platforms and that many of Trump’s own advisers regarded the blog as “low-quality and unimpressive.” Post reporters Drew Harwell and Josh Dawsey quoted data from social media metrics company BuzzSumo which found that the site had fewer than 15,000 daily shares across all of Facebook and Twitter after launching.
The Post article clearly bruised Trump. Shortly after its release, he published a post claiming that his site was a big success that was drawing in many supporters.
“[T]he very basic site we have to post our statements has received 36.7 million views over the past month alone, and we’re getting more traffic to our website now than in 2020, an Election year!” Trump wrote. “This number would be even greater if we were still on Twitter and Facebook, but since Big Tech has illegally banned me, tens of millions of our supporters have stopped using these platforms because they’ve become ‘boring’ and nasty.”
As bad as Trump’s blog was, however, it was still a step up from his previous practice of writing old-fashioned press releases and sending them to high-profile surrogates in the hopes that they would post them.
“Frankly, they’re more elegant than tweeting, as the expression goes, they’re really much more elegant and the word is getting out,” Trump claimed in a March 22 interview with the far-right television network Newsmax.
The press release effort was a failure as well, however, as NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny observed.
Now, less than one month after its launch, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” has been consigned to the digital dustbin. Speaking to CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger, Miller claimed that the blog had only been designed as an “auxiliary to the broader efforts” but notably, he didn’t describe what those efforts were.
Trump’s aborted blog site is far from the only right-wing attempt to create alternatives to allegedly biased social media networks that has washed out. There have been numerous attempts over the years to create “a conservative version” of various platforms including RightBook, ReaganBook, and FreedomBook. In my former days as a conservative media consultant, I was personally involved with the launch of a Christian-friendly YouTube alternative called “EyeBlast.” The project was a complete bust. As of this writing, the domain name appears to be operated by a pornography distributor.
Despite the fact that none of their efforts have succeeded, however, far-right Republicans keep bilking investors and donors in order to create more politicized social networks including Twitter alternatives Parler and Gab, both of which have become infamous for being hubs for white nationalists and for having pitiful security procedures. There are many other sites as well. Mike Lindell, the former crack addict now known as a salesman for pillows and domestic coup attempts, also has his own site called Frank Speech which is supposed to be an alternative to both YouTube and Twitter but resembles neither in any real way. And, just like Trump, Lindell doesn’t allow visitors to comment on his incoherent rants.
The serial failures of the far-right in the online space were preceded by their failure in the television news space. Before Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes acquired the experience and money sufficient to launch Fox News in 1996, two other GOP television efforts had come and gone, National Empowerment Television and Television News Incorporated. Ailes, Fox News’s infamous first president, was actually involved with the latter.
The right’s perpetual inability to succeed as media entrepreneurs underscores the point that people who hate the mainstream will never be able to create mainstream alternatives. It is now abundantly clear though that major social media companies have a tremendous responsibility to protect the public from bad actors who are bent on monetizing extremism. Trump’s banishment from social media hasn’t meant the end of his political career, but it has made it much more difficult for him to utilize the support he once had when he was able to have direct, personal access to the news feeds of even his casual backers.
Deplatforming works, there’s no question about it. How it should be used is a matter of debate.
What shouldn’t be debated is that private media companies have no obligation to subsidize extremism and that they must be held accountable for monitoring their networks in the same way that cities keep their streets open for peaceful protests but closed to violent incitement.