Donald Trump’s Twitter account was very much like a fire-breathing dragon marauding around your front yard.
You knew the dragon was there, and you knew it was capable of shooting columns of flames out of its yawning mouth at any moment. You tried not to open the curtains and check on the beast every waking minute of the day. But sometimes you couldn’t help it because the threat was ever present and the dragon – as dragons are – was unpredictable, mercurial, temperamental in a way that viscerally frightened you and your loved ones.
Sometimes you’d pull back the curtain a couple inches and see the dragon resting. You knew it had something in mind – you could see it in its eyes – but you needed to get back to work or make dinner or just live your damn life. Other times you’d take a peak and see the dragon engulfing your neighbor’s house with a pillar of flame.
Honey, you’d say, Bill and Cindy’s house is gone. Their Camry too. Did we want sushi tonight or are we good with leftovers?
Like the dragon in your yard, Trump was the Main Character to end all Main Characters, making presidential decrees via Twitter post and occasionally toying with violent fantasies that titillated his followers. The flames could start again at any time. Everyone knew it. Some folks liked the flames because they knew the fire wasn’t coming for them and they like to watch things burn. Others were pretty sure the fire wouldn’t cascade on them, but worried about those in the dragon’s path.
Then one day, after Trumpists tried and failed to overthrow the United States government, he was gone – banned from all major social media platforms in the aftermath of a highly-coordinated and, eventually, violent and deadly coup attempt. Trump’s power as the main character of humanity was instantly drained, vanishing as if a dark spell had been lifted by some merciful being (Jack Dorsey, I suppose, in this case).
You woke up one day and pulled back the curtains to reveal … nothing in your front yard. The dragon was gone. Bill and Cindy’s house and their 2012 Camry were still piles of ashy rubble, but the beast was no more. You could eat your sushi without the threat of a fiery death. For now.
De-platforming: The Key To No-Faith Politics
If we have one rule at the Bad Faith Times, it is to never, under any circumstances, engage with bad-faith arguments. You must take this blood oath when you subscribe (read the fine print).
This rule has been chiseled in stone outside BFT headquarters for two reasons: Pushing back against arguments people use but do not mean is a useless venture that will only strengthen them and weaken you, and trying to knock down bad-faith discourse will slowly but surely drive you insane. And here at Bad Faith Times, we value your sanity.
When folks on the right pretend to care about women’s health or election integrity or bail reform, there’s no point in engaging with the discourse. It is meant to trip you up, since – as you know – conservative lawmakers aren’t actually worried about the health of women when they create laws designed to shut down abortion clinics and they’re not trying to improve elections when they remove polling places from majority-black neighborhoods or instruct police to stop likely Democratic voters from participating in elections.
You can point out the bad faith in these arguments, but don’t be lured into a debate. Again, you’ll go mad.
So what’s the solution? Obviously no social media company would ban users for deploying bad-faith tactics, but these bad-faith operators could be disproportionately impacted if social platforms do the right thing and de-platform those who advocate or act on violent and/or dangerous conspiracy theories. Bad faith goes hand in horrible hand with these things.
There are clear red lines that are crossed when right-wing influencers post outrageous and dangerous lies about immigrants and the crime and general treachery they supposedly bring to otherwise upstanding American communities. I cringe when I see far-right accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers scare their followers into believing the US is being "invaded" by Central and South American immigrants; read the replies to these posts and you too will cringe, or cry. These lies either directly or indirectly lead to violence against immigrants and people of color and those who support underrepresented and disenfranchised groups. It’s called stochastic terrorism, which begins with propagandistic demonization of a person or group of people and ends in violence. Stochastic terror, in the Age of Trump, has become a useful weapon for the American right in its mission to dominate politics and culture.
The question becomes: Does de-platforming these people actually do anything to stop their uncivil and dangerous behavior? The answer, according to social media researchers at Princeton and Columbia universities, is mostly yes.
Based on various measures developed for the social media study, researchers found “that in aggregate, after one year online attention towards a de-platformed personality is reduced by 64% on Google and by 43% on Wikipedia.” The researchers added that de-platforming an extremely well-known personality does not have nearly the effect of banning someone with less public awareness. “The more famous (or notorious) a personality, the less effect de-platforming will have on overall attention paid to them,” they wrote.
The reasons people are banned from popular social media channels matter in how much they are impacted by the de-platforming. The researchers observed “similar effects for both temporary and permanent de-platforming,” but note that “users banned for spreading misinformation seem to have their subsequent online attention reduced further than those banned for other reasons.” This is surprising, given the pick-your-reality nature of the internet and the ways that has shaped people’s politics in this age of fragmentation. I would, in other words, not expect misinformation to be the social media attention death knell it appears to be.
The researchers’ overarching conclusion, however, very much supports that idea that punishing social media personalities who spread lies or encourage violence is worth the effort, and should not be avoided. It hurts their standing in the attention economy.
We find that de-platforming is more effective when targeting popular influencers disseminating misinformation; yet, we argue that the key policy guidance our paper can provide comes from a null result: that temporary deplatforming was similar to permanent de-platforming in how it reduced online attention toward influencers. We speculate that this may be partially due to deterrence, i.e., temporarily banned influencers may avoid rule-breaking to prevent harsher sanctions. Here we did not discriminate between short (e.g., one week) vs. long (e.g., one month) temporary bans, which could be an interesting venue for future work. Broadly, permanent bans of prominent influencers have caused controversy as: the rationale behind the bans is often muddy; there is no clear “reinstatement” procedure for banned accounts; it is unclear if social media companies should be the ones to regulate speech. Having bans of limited time is aligned with the broader call for a more transparent, consistent, and accountable approach to social media moderation.
This is probably where you say, Denny, you idiot, you moron, don’t you know what a slippery slope this is? How can you not see that the right wing will use the power of de-platforming to rid the internet of anyone and everyone pushing back against the Grand Right-Wing Plan? And you cannot emphasize this enough: You moron, you absolute fucking idiot.
And yes, I am chilled by the prospect of right-wing operators like Elon Musk – who may have purchased and dismantled Twitter because it had become such a useful organizing tool for the left – using his power to ban journalists and activists doing critically important work in opposition to the rising tide of fascism that threatens to envelop us all. Every few months, there is a brief but real panic online that Musk has banned dozens of influential left-wing X accounts in what might be a purge of his many and varied political opponents. This always ends up being some sort of error or glitch or something, but I don’t discount Musk from taking that big, repressive step once it’s clear he won’t get his investment back because mainstream advertisers will never return to his dirty little nest of fascist politics.
Dismissing de-platforming as a strategy to heal the body politick and make the culture slightly less fashy would be foolish just because we fear Elon Musk and his ilk will use their riches and power to drown out voices they oppose. I fully believe we’re headed toward a glorious, censorious future in which the far right will be largely relegated to their own, tiny corners of the internet, where they can rage amongst themselves as normal folks engage in (mostly) civil discourse on major social media platforms.
De-platforming is the only viable solution to countering the flood of bad-faith politics overwhelming mainstream media outlets and our institutions. Stopping the bad faith at its source is a far superior option than trying (and failing) to counter every single bad-faith argument that leaks into our politics. We can no longer pretend that the Marketplace of Ideas will sort out everything, and that people will be rational actors and choose reality of whatever it is the far right has presented as an alternative. The Marketplace of Ideas ceases to function when it is contaminated by people with massive followings saying things they do not mean. Bad faith politics short circuits the marketplace.
The right has become so detached from anything resembling reality that there is no bridging the gap between their twisted, bad-faith world and the actual world in which regular people live. The right’s politics will become so deranged – even more deranged than today, if you can comprehend such a thing – that major platforms will have no choice but to ban those influencing horrific acts, much like former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who is now a nonentity in American political culture.
Here’s to hoping whatever event launches this censorious future won’t be entirely catastrophic.
Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social and on Threads and X at @CDCarter13.