Tech giants' hands-off approach to disinformation does not bode well at a time of growing political violence
Donald Trump turned himself in at Fulton County jail in Georgia on Thursday last week, where he was fingerprinted and had a mugshot taken - just like any other accused felon. Obviously, unlike many others in the same situation, he was immediately able to post bond and leave. Nevertheless, the moment was remarkable: it was the first ever mugshot of a former president.
Back in March, before the various investigations had resulted in any indictments, Trump warned there could be consequences if he was indicted, calling on his supporters to "take back our nation". No 6 January-style mass action has materialised, but as summer winds down in the northern hemisphere, political threats and violence do seem to be ramping up here in the US.
Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis, an African American woman and the official who indicted Trump as part of a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia, has faced threats. Members of the grand jury who weighed the evidence in the Georgia case have been doxxed by Trump supporters, putting them at risk of violence for doing their civic duty.
Given the deep divisions in the US, and the radicalised state of the right in particular, it is likely this trend will continue through to the 2024 election.
To make matters worse, it seems other social media platforms are taking a cue from Elon Musk's X (formerly Twitter) and shifting away from taking a proactive stance against the spread of disinformation. In terms of social media manipulation by bad actors, this means the 2024 presidential election is likely to resemble the 2016 election - infamously subjected to Russian interference - more than the 2020 election.
Let's hope they don't also follow Musk's lead when it comes to hate speech. Musk has reinstated accounts suspended from Twitter for disinformation, hate and incitement, including Trump's, and openly supported anti-trans accounts. These include influencer Libs of TikTok, which recently spread a story about a woman who apparently harassed staff at a clinic in Portland, Oregon that provides gender-affirming care to trans people to the point that she was barred from the clinic. Libs of TikTok and other anti-trans accounts supported the woman's absurd demand that the clinic remove a trans Pride flag as a "hate symbol". Soon after, the clinic received a bomb threat.
Meanwhile, two LGBTIQ centres in Orlando, Florida found their outdoor murals defaced with anti-gay and Nazi graffiti on Saturday. The graffiti included swastikas, rifle crosshairs and the phrases "gay is not OK" and "unity or extinction". The latter was scrawled beneath a signature of sorts from a Florida-based white supremacist group called the Knights of the Black Sun. On the same day, a white man murdered three Black Floridians in cold blood in a store in Jacksonville, an attack that the local sheriff described as "racially motivated". The shooter had drawn swastikas on his gun.
These incidents come hot on the heels of the murder of a shop owner in San Bernardino, California who refused to take down her LGBTIQ Pride flag, by a man known to have 'liked' and shared anti-LGBTIQ content on social media.
And this is a far from comprehensive list of the right's recent threats and acts of violence.
But what else should we expect in a country where prominent members of the Republican Party threaten civil war because the criminal justice system has moved to hold their authoritarian figurehead accountable for his actions?
The fact is that whether or not US prosecutors had charged Trump with any crimes, the right-wing rage he has fed since his 2020 election loss, which he has refused to accept and continually lied about, was always going to burn fiercely during the 2024 election cycle. The radicalised Republican Party has shown its true anti-democratic colours.
With the other Republican primary candidates lacking charisma and unlikely to win their party's nomination, prospects are (I think) reasonably good for the Democrats to hold on to the presidency. But however things play out, the patriarchal, racist, unreconstructed US right's violent rage, enabled by the capitulation of the Big Tech companies on policing hate and disinformation, guarantees a bumpy ride to next November - and beyond.
The only way to bring about a better political future is to disincentivise anti-democratic and criminal attitudes and behaviours by defeating Republicans at the ballot box and holding them accountable for crimes committed in the process of attempting to destroy American democracy. There is no compromising with an authoritarian party bent on keeping all power for itself.
Encouragingly, although some in Trump's base are treating his criminal prosecution as a "badge of honour", a recent poll indicates that the indictments are likely to have a negative impact on his electability, particularly if he is convicted of a crime before the election in November 2024.
So it is a good thing that Trump was mugshotted and fingerprinted in Fulton County - even if he was still treated with extreme privilege.
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