Why the loss of his social media is going to cause serious psychological withdrawal for America’s outgoing president.
William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer begins when a cyborg hacker named Henry Case betrays his bosses. They punish him by chemically frying the hardware embedded in his body that once let him ‘’jack’’ into networks and steal data for a living in this dystopia set in the middle of the 21st century. The world is recovering from a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.
Case’s former patrons leave him to languish, morose and broke, unable to work and unable to get his cybernetic fix. He’s as useless to the criminal underworld as a bricked-by-microwave iPhone is to an Instagram influencer. Case goes to cyborg repair shops, but none of them can help him and end his ex-communication from the electromagnetic ether.
In 2021, a similar dystopian fate has befallen the president of the United States. On Friday, Twitter deleted Donald Trump’s account. When he tried to jump onto associated handles, Twitter fried those, too. His brain had become welded to the platform, into which he would ‘’jack in’’ every morning and get his rush of dopamine from the tens of thousands of retweets and likes, the replies that called him a messiah and the replies that called him a monster.
The loss of his social media is going to cause serious psychological withdrawal for America’s cyborg president. He’s been deprived of what Gibson called the calming, time-slicing ‘’consensual hallucination’’ of being an extremely online Console Cowboy.
‘’The less dopamine you have in your system, you wind up in a mental place where nothing seems to fit,’’ Tom Wilson, a psychology researcher at The New School in New York City, told TRT World. ‘’The attention he got from social media triggered a neurochemical response in Trump’s brain, just like it does in anybody.’’
Dopamine is sometimes known as the ‘’happiness chemical,’’ and when our brains release it, it can help us reconcile ourselves to unpleasant realities. And that unpleasant reality this week is a second impeachment process against him, under charges of fomenting insurrection. He won’t have social media to cut the sting of being the first president to face impeachment twice, or even potential removal from office before his term ends on January 20. Congress may also bar from seeking the presidency again in 2024.
‘’The rushes of dopamine Trump got from social media helped him convince himself he was living in a world where he was always winning,’’ Wilson added. ‘’Without those rushes, reality is going to start coming back at him with a vengeance. Beyond depression, he’s likely to start feeling more paranoid. If someone offers him a plea deal and it’s not exactly what he wants, the lack of dopamine will mean he’ll reject the deal.’’
Twitter (and Facebook) banned him for what it said was an on-going plot to stoke violence with his account, after encouraging his supporters to march on the US Capitol and overrun it. His supporters brought weapons and even plastic handcuffs to take lawmakers hostage. Trump had used his Twitter account to convince them that the election was stolen by Democrats, and that anybody who didn’t recognize he won was a traitor.
Federal authorities have arrested around a hundred people suspected of participating in the destruction, combing through the mountain of evidence the people who breached the building left themselves. The yearning for dopamine hits was so strong that hundreds felt the need to record their own crime spree.
As of Monday, the riot has left six dead. Police shot and killed one protester, one was crushed to death in the stampede, and two others died of heart attacks; one Capitol Police officer reportedly beaten by rioters succumbed to his wounds Saturday morning. Another officer who responded to the crisis killed himself, also on Saturday.
“We are lucky, more than anything else, there wasn’t a large death toll,” extremism expert Peter Simi told The Atlantic. “It could have been far, far worse. The idea of taking folks who have committed treason prisoner, those are ideas that are widely circulating in [far-right] circles. All the Democratic lawmakers and any of the Republicans that have criticised Trump or not fully supported Trump would be eligible.”
The violent crowd, convinced by Trump they were stopping a coup rather than trying to commit one, did not succeed in stopping congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral college win. Although the bid had almost no hope of succeeding before the riot happened, the mayhem made some senators who vowed to support the challenge lose their appetite. Even so, more than 100 Republicans in the House carried on with the charade even after having their own lives threatened by the pipe bombs and weapons the rioters brought.
Only after all this, and after four years using his personal Twitter account to bully his fellow Americans, other world leaders and members of his own cabinet, his enablers in Big Tech decided to pull the plug. Like Case in Neuromancer, Trump had stolen from his bosses. By making them an accomplice to the endangering of lawmakers that regulate them, he had exposed them to financial risk that outweighed the reward of keeping him on their platforms.
While Trump and his allies cried foul about big freedom of speech, they did not seem to recognise how fragile his connection to his ‘’people’’ was the whole time. A few keystrokes were all that stood between the @realdonaldtrump handle retaining its pullover global politics and grainy screenshots of Trump tweets that now litter the information superhighway.
Is free speech in America dead now that Trump has been kicked off Twitter. Probably not. Trump became more trouble than he was worth once he started fomenting attacks against lawmakers responsible for regulating Big Tech. He made the same error that Case did in Neuromancer: He stole from his bosses. And yes, just like Gibson’s futuristic cyborg cat-burglar for hire, Trump’s power was always dependent on whether he was more trouble than he was worth.
The question that tech companies and government will now ask is how to make the Internet safe for Americans. How can algorithms moderate speech in a way that reduces radicalization and bullying and violent extremist plots? But that’s the wrong question. The right question is how can the government make Americans safe for the Internet.
Laissez-faire attitudes towards education and economics are not going to cut it anymore. There will always be bullies who disrupt society and foment violence, but educators and people of goodwill can decrease the danger these bullies pose by providing free mental healthcare and education to more people. That’s how you make the Internet safe for the public. It is a fool’s errand to try to eliminate reprehensible speech online. At that point, it’s already too late.
What we consider to be the United States is a product of compulsory public education. Those institutions have been eroded under the yoke of austerity, whipped by ideological taskmasters who say an elected government has no place in trying to improve society somewhat. The last week has proven that notion to be intellectually bankrupt, leading to the election of a man whose only political ideology was whatever kept his dopamine pumping behind his eyeballs.
Fixing the way Americans use the Internet to prevent further insurrections is a task as daunting as teaching everyone to read again, or stringing electric wires across every creek and hollow in the country. But the pandemic has provided a spirit of the need for radical renewal, given the depth of the precipice over which we now peer.
And by we, I mean the whole world. A distrustful, paranoid America will not relinquish its nuclear weapons, and a rising tide of vengeful nationalism is set to run straight into an emboldened brand of Chinese chauvinism. But Beijing has no intention to arrest that trend among its netizens.
Americans, on the other hand, do still have the opportunity to reject a political narrative that tells them to seek a misguided payback for the pandemic in a world-ending war with China. The future is still being written, but Trump’s Twitter feed was trying to draft that war 280 characters at a time. His removal from Twitter may have bought the planet a few more years to figure out how to avoid a radioactive whirlwind that would spare no nation, whether a friend of Washington or a foe, and render the future of this century far grimmer than any of Gibson’s nightmares.