Here’s the $64,000 question for our time: how did digital technologies go from being instruments for spreading democracy to tools for undermining it? Or, to put it a different way, how did social media go from empowering free speech to becoming a cornerstone of authoritarian power?
And then, one day, the internet arrived and the game changed. Suddenly, anyone could be a publisher. Every individual would be able freely to choose what to believe, with whom they would associate and where they would choose to direct their attention. The power of broadcast media would be attenuated. The public sphere could become a free “marketplace of ideas” in which good ideas would drive out the bad. Twitter seemed like the technological instantiation of this ideal: it promoted individual expression and helped to build social networks. Anyone could say anything (well, almost: there were always those vapid “community guidelines”). The first amendment ruled OK.
Trump’s capture of the presidency, says Turner, has comprehensively refuted the democratising promise of digital media. The key feature of authoritarian capture is the projection of the charismatic personality of the ruler. In an analogue era, that meant that the bodies or minds of his audience had to be brought together in one place so that he could work his hypnotic magic. Think Nuremberg rallies or regular speeches like the ones Goebbels used to transmit, via the inexpensive radio receivers he dispensed and also by loudspeakers in public places.
Although Trump has used mini-Nuremberg-style rallies to great effect, he displays most ingenuity in using Twitter to project his charisma. Turner highlights two aspects of this. The first is the way he uses the medium to project his personality: the daft, tempestuous tweets that so infuriate liberals are taken by followers as a sign of his authenticity as a person. He’s “just being himself” – so unlike conventional politicians – and so claims the right to their attention and political support. The second significant aspect is that his tweets come as part of a follower’s twitterstream, interspersed with tweets from friends and a range of other sources. In that way, Trump uses the medium “to insert himself into the company of a user’s chosen conversation partners”, much as Franklin Roosevelt used his “fireside” radio chats during his presidency.
Turner’s analysis of Trump’s ascendancy is as depressing as it is acute. He concludes that “authoritarian charisma is not medium-dependent. Nor are authentic individuality, the intimate social sphere, or flexible collaborative networks necessarily enemies of totalitarianism.” And it’s not clear what, if anything, can be done to improve things. Of course, Twitter could ban Trump, but with 53.8 million followers it’s unlikely to do that. Mainstream media could start ignoring Trump’s tweets, which effectively allow him to control their news agendas, but they won’t, because he’s good for clicks and circulation. And besides, the guy is, after all, the elected president of the United States. Which, in a way, neatly summarises the problem we’ve got.