As a teenager in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time on online bulletin boards. There were fun, chaotic places where me and my fellow nerds spent hours discussing everything under the sun: sports, music, video games, the latest episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Regardless of the subject, there was a universal experience: On each board, a divisive issue would inevitably break out into conflict, and an angry group of users – often led by a single, voiceless who felt they were being treated unfairly – would lead an uprising against “mods”
Sometimes, the modern struggle was acknowledged or struck a compromise and brought the board back in harmony. Other times, the angry users broke off and started their own forum, or the board simply became so intolerable that everyone left.
That internet is long gone now. Social media apps killed the messy, unstable message boards and replaced them with neat personal feeds. The new modern ones are mostly robots. And the people who make the rules – Jack Dorsey on Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook, Susan Wojcicki from YouTube and a handful of others – have become some of the world’s richest and most influential people, with the power to shift global politics and curate billions of information.
This week, President Trump declared war on the modern after Twitter attached a fact check on its tweets for the first time. On Thursday, he issued an executive order threatening to restrict legal protection for platforms that censor speech for ideological reasons and sent his followers to an individual Twitter employee whom he accused, incorrectly, of censoring him. And he made it clear that he wanted to try to punish Facebook, YouTube or other platforms that disrupted his ability to communicate directly with his followers.
The war escalated on Friday, when Twitter took action against another of Trump’s tweets and one from the official White House account. In these cases, posts were about the protests in Minneapolis, which meant looting could be fired. Twitter hid the messages behind a warning label saying they violated the site’s policy of glorifying violence.
The question of what type of online numbers a world leader should be allowed to post on social media is mind-bogglingly complex, with lots of conflicting priorities and simple answers.
But at least for me, it helps to think of what happens as a high-stakes version of drama that we’ve all seen played out on neighbors’ Nextdoor threads, spotty Facebook groups and messy Reddit forums for years.
Seen in this way, Trump’s war on the platforms is a familiar refrain. A power user with a passionate streak strikes the moderators for his favorite internet services. He likes how these services were run earlier, when he could raise problems and talk to him without consequences.
Now modern inserts new guardrails, and he is upset. He wants what internet trolls and rebels have always wanted: to be allowed to post in peace, free from boundaries and restrictions. Most of all, he wants modern people to know who is really responsible.
In a 2017 article about right-to-right divisions, Katie Notopoulos from BuzzFeed News summarized the phases of message boards as a period of dirty fights over rules and regulations, followed by the formation of a “splinter board” where rebellious users went to escape what they saw as an overly restrictive environment.
“This path usually occurs after the moderators on the board have made use of dedicated users, usually by introducing hard disk rules or banning users,” she wrote.
An obvious difference between these niche bulletin boards and today’s social media platforms is that the latter are huge, market-dominant companies whose products are used by billions of people. Their power gives unhappy users fewer choices to break and gives modern more leverage. (Even Mr. Trump seems to realize that he needs Twitter, no matter how unhappy he is with his decision.)
Also complicating matters: Trump is the sitting president, with the executive branch’s power at his disposal. Unlike a disgruntled Buffy fan or angry Beanie Baby collector, he can create legal and regulatory headaches for the platforms he’s putting out, making moderating his misconduct a greater risk.
But when you look at Trump as an annoyed user of a brazen internet forum rather than a politician who makes high-profile statements about freedom of speech, the dynamics of the game are clarified here. Mod drama is never really about who can say what or what specific posts that broke what specific rules. Often it is part of a power struggle between chaos and order, fought by people who thrive in a lawless environment.
In Twitter cases, the company enforces rules it already had on its books – one that prohibits misinformation related to the voting process and another that prohibits glorifying violence. They are both clear, sensible rules, and Trump’s punishment for breaking them was relatively mild. Twitter did not ban Trump or post his tweets. It placed a small disclaimer on two of them – a couple of baseless tweets claiming that post-in polls were ripe for voter fraud – and put a warning label on another.
But given Twitter’s history of permitting with Trump, any measures to keep him would stir. And Trump and his allies wasted no time in caring.
After fact checking, his campaign released a statement accusing Twitter of conspiring to “pull out all the stops to stop and prevent President Trump from getting his message to voters.” He also signed an executive order demanding greater scrutiny of social media platforms and threatening to restrict Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the widely cited passage that provides legal immunity to Internet companies for user-generated content displayed on their platforms.
There may be empty threats. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are private companies with no first amendment obligations for users, and the courts have consistently decided that these companies can set their own rules, just as restaurants can require guests to wear shirts and shoes.
But Mr. Trump – whose entire online personality is based on pushing boundaries, and whose re-election campaign has already had some of his ads that are removed for violating Facebook’s rules – have a strategic interest in getting the modern day off by scaring bosses on social media into letting him post impunity.
Facebook seems to have got Mr. Trump’s announcement. Before this week it was very clear the policy of banning voter suppression as well as politicians, who are exempt from many of Facebook’s rules, were obliged to follow. But on Wednesday, Zuckerberg, Facebook’s executive director, went to Fox News to say that the company would not control Trump’s submission vote, and that he was uncomfortable acting as a “judge of truth.” As of Friday morning, Trump’s statement that Minneapolis protesters could be shot still likes his Facebook page, with no warning labels in sight.
I’m leaving Mr. Zuckerberg’s motive for others to decode. But in my experience, mods that leave land to border pushers with bad faith have not had the ease of keeping their communities on the rails.
I recently called Matt Haughey, the founder of one of my favorite forums in the early 2000s, MetaFilter. After spending several years supervising a lively online community, Haughey is a veteran observer and judge of the drama board. He said Trump’s crusade against Twitter felt familiar.
“Every bad thing on MetaFilter happened to someone who had been testing the rules for a year or two,” he said. “They tend to flourish in super-trolls over time. They will see what they can get away with, they will find out what the boundaries are and just stay one step inside. It can go on forever. And when you inevitably break and say, this is a bad idea, they trick out and try to play the victim. “
The stakes from Trump’s war on social media companies are significantly higher than those in a random dispute on the Internet bulletin board. But the platforms can learn from their predecessors that some users do not want to compromise with or be motivated with. Their goal is power, not justice. And if the moderates are afraid to hold them accountable when they break the rules, they will continue to push the boundaries again and again – until finally the board is their to run.