Economy & Politics

Twitter & Trump: What does social media mean for democracy?

Wolfgang Gründinger is one of the “Top 40 under 40” of Personal-Financial.com magazine.Photo: Paul Probst

It would be too easy to blame social media for Donald Trump’s election victories alone. Because they are a fire accelerator, but not the cause of the problem. Four years of kleptocratic chaos, unrestrained lies, open sympathy for extremist violence – and yet Donald Trump brought almost half of the nation behind him in the election campaign. How could it be that an autocratic liar and oligarch almost got re-elected? How is such a thing even possible?

For many, the answer is clear: Social media must be to blame! Why else should people choose this type after all, if not perfidiously manipulated by invisible algorithms?

The digital platforms reacted much too late and hesitantly when it had long been clear that democracy enemies were misusing them as an organizational space and propaganda machine. But are Twitter and Facebook the stirrup holders for Trump’s road to power? I think no. Anyone who thinks this way reduces the threat to a purely technical problem that could be brought under control by a little more regulation (or the unreal abolition of digital communication), and distracts from much more fundamental questions of a deliberative democracy.

Cambridge Analytica were loudmouths too

Many had already blamed Facebook and Twitter for Trump’s supposedly surprising election victory in 2016. But the evidence that this was really the case is rather poor.

The dodgy company Cambridge Analytica had cockily claimed to have used fraudulent profile data to place advertisements on Facebook in order to manipulate people’s brains. But even then, there were great doubts as to whether advertisements could really turn over millions of opinions. After a three-year investigation, the UK data protection authorities finally found no evidence of the success of the data abuse.

Cambridge Analytica were successful barkers, but failed manipulators.

Trump sympathizers barely used social media and mainly obtained information from the powerful conservative TV broadcaster Fox News – which was the main source of information for 40% of Trump supporters. Unfortunately, the critical role of Fox News is being lost because we are too happy to be distracted by the social media debate.

But isn’t there the filter bubble in which we are only shown what confirms our opinion? This thesis is popular, but poorly proven. In the USA, a higher use of social media correlates even with lower political polarization! Young people overly favored Biden, while the elderly preferred Trump. If social media were so divisive, it would be the other way around.

We are part of the problem

The algorithms of social media prefer posts that generate a lot of reactions – and these are often different opinions. For example, I didn’t subscribe to Trump on Twitter. Nevertheless, I keep getting his tweets in my timeline because there are enough users who comment on him. This is how we all spread the lies, whether we want it or not.

Trump alone would only be a Twitter account. We all made him great by moving his agenda forward. Lies on social media only make a career if newspapers and television jump on them, shows a study of the German federal election 2017. Only then do they move from the niche to the mainstream. When classic media report on Trump as if it were serious politics, then they are only promoting his agenda.

For a long time (and sometimes until today) journalism did not come to terms with the bizarre absurdity of Trump’s will-o-the-wisps. Trump deliberately hacked the principles of journalistic distance and balance. Social media acted as a fire accelerator, not a cause.

Fight the enemies of democracy

The enemies of freedom use that very freedom to abolish it. The enemies of democracy were only looking for a way to organize themselves and a leading figure to bring them together. They voted for Trump because they liked what he said and did, and although they knew, or could easily have known, that he is a liar and an autocrat.

The so-called Mitte study shows with alarming regularity how many people in this country actually have anti-democratic, xenophobic, chauvinistic or nationalistic sentiments. In 2006, when the study began, the Internet was only embryonic. Back then you had to find another scapegoat, unless you simply denied the results or ignored them apathetically. For a long time we simply did not want to admit that the enemies of freedom organized themselves.

We must declare war on the enemies of freedom. This is a social challenge that forces us all to act, and unfortunately that is precisely why it is so difficult. We can no longer look the other way, belittle, relativize. No more excuses and no more appeasements. Not on social media – and not anywhere else.


Dr. Wolfgang Gründinger is a digital thinker and lobbyist for the future. His books have received several awards, most recently “Old Sacks of Politics”. He is one of the “Top 40 under 40” of Personal-Financial.com magazine.

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