clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Twitter helped make Trump -- should it try to break him?

With great power comes great responsibility.

Spencer Platt

Twitter, the platform that proudly gave voice to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and Facebook, which helped birth the Arab Spring, have to grapple with this new reality: They helped create Donald Trump.

A Vanity Fair column by veteran technology writer Nick Bilton explores the role new social media has played in propelling Trump to Republican presidential front-runner status.

Trump is the same bombastic misogynist who ran for president in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate, and explored possible bids in 2004 and 2012, he notes. What’s different this time around is the reality-star-turned-political-candidate has a social media platform for his views.

The candidate has attracted 7.7 million Twitter followers and seven million on Facebook. Each outlandish pronouncement — be it proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. or calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists — seems to bring more followers.

But social media doesn’t exist in isolation. Trump’s tweets get picked up and endlessly amplified by mainstream media, which reaches a broad swath of voters.

And long before the candidate sent his first tweet, Trump was showing up in millions of American living rooms as the host of NBC’s popular reality show “The Apprentice,” which burnished his reputation as a savvy, blunt-spoken businessman. That’s a central part of his campaign narrative. It also helped him refine a persona that translates well to Twitter (and, arguably, the stump).

Still, Twitter and Facebook played a role in a candidacy that’s wildly unpopular in Silicon Valley. So, will they try to do something to stop it?

That seems unlikely.

A furor erupted when Gizmodo broke news last week that Facebook’s employees used a company poll to ask Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg whether Facebook should try to prevent a Trump presidency.

Facebook says it has no interest in exerting that kind of influence over an election. The social network endured a storm of protest when it was revealed that it had manipulated users’ News Feeds — the videos, pictures and web links some 689,000 people saw — to determine what would trigger emotional responses.

Twitter, meanwhile, is doing its best to avoid picking sides. A spokesperson recently cited the site’s political neutrality in declining a reporter’s request to interview Chief Technology Officer Adam Messinger, who contributed to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Emily Bell, director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, says Twitter and Facebook need to do more than merely assert their neutrality.

“These platforms do have a responsibility to recognize their own power,” Bell said. “There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing anyone who has created or is in charge of a platform saying, ‘We are just a technology company.'”

Bell said social media companies should be more transparent about the decisions that influence what information their users see. These are powerful platforms with absolute control over channels of communication. They can’t assert zero responsibility.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Bell said. “Everybody need algorithms. They’re a good thing. They’re also a system of power. When you have systems of power that have effects on the democratic process, you expect to have some insight into them.”

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.