Donald Trump wants the world to acknowledge his ridiculous story about people cheering on 9/11, so today he printed some articles from the web and shared them on Periscope. Normally we might think that printing out websites and streaming them on a smartphone is a senile act, but don’t let Trump fool you. Every time he speaks on Periscope, he’ll deal another blow to media’s traditional gatekeepers.
Here’s an inconvenient truth about Donald Trump: regardless of his electoral viability, he’s completely owning the mainstream media. It’s really not a contest. The formula for Trump’s media dominance is simple: Donald Trump says something legitimately crazy, and the news media is forced to react to his every move, because they don’t own as much of Trump’s audience as they used to. When Trump wanted to share racist statistics on crime that were conjured by white supremacists, he clicked a button, and those ideas reached his audience without the say of an editor. And when he was then challenged by the media on those statistics, Trump basically said “what is a retweet, really,” and went about his day. (The thoroughly debunked tweet is still in Trump’s timeline.)
Trump’s direct access to a wide audience, the same kind brands have been exploiting for years on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, has caused deep panic in traditional media clubs that are used to the privilege of holding at least some of the reins on the electoral horse race they invented. That horse race has now completely backfired on the media. Fox and CNN rely on polls to decide who’s invited to Republican debates and where they stand, which has repeatedly led to those networks featuring a belligerent racist at center stage. At this point, even distinguished publications like The Washington Post are running stories with anxious headlines like: Is the media starting to get to Donald Trump — just a little? (Subtext: does my work even matter?) As Vox puts it, “media gatekeepers are in danger of being exposed as impotent bystanders.”
SOCIAL PLATFORMS SCALE EXISTING POWER STRUCTURES, TOO
Trump is able to cut through the middlemen at places like NBC, FOX, The New York Times,and even The Verge (yes, we’ve tried to speak to Trump unsuccessfully), with seemingly unlimited impunity. Because he owns his audience, he won’t need to pay a television network a cent, but he will dominate headlines and media cycles anyway. Remarkably, Trump has barely spent any money on media distribution — just $217,000 (on radio ads) to Jeb Bush’s $28.9 million so far.
Part of Trump’s success in reaching lots of people is definitely based on his style of racial dog-whistle politics and inexhaustible one-upsmanship; if you ask Trump any question, let’s say it’s about border walls, he is prone to respond by saying we need a lot of border walls — in fact, he’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to walls, and you’ll never see a wall more beautiful than the one he’s going to build. The media is going to cover those remarks every time, because they are truly incredible. But he’s also successful because the same platforms the tech industry has ushered in as great democratizing forces are subject to most of the traditional power dynamics they purport to disrupt.
Take the Arab Spring, for example. If you were a Twitter investor or true believer in 2010, it looked like the whole world was about to change forever thanks to the existence of a short messaging service on the web. And it did change, for a minute, before the incumbents with vast resources, deep institutional power, and organized political labor simply waited everyone out and then took even more control.
FACEBOOK AND TWITTER HAVE PROVIDED TRUMP WITH MASSIVE LEVERAGE
Trump, in a sense, is also an incumbent. He entered the presidential race with enough money and power to ignore donors, attack competitors freely, and launch himself into a zone of legitimacy based on polling. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms which are ostensibly neutral, allow Trump to seize the means of media distribution, and leverage them against the traditional media gatekeepers. That leverage is real: the five leading television networks have been working together to fight back against Trump’s contemptuous posture. It is not clear they will be successful.
So next week Donald Trump will be back, on Periscope, probably sharing more printed out articles that will allegedly validate his preposterous claims about thousands of people cheering on 9/11, or how everyone in charge of America is stupid, or how the Trans Pacific Partnership is a Chinese plot. This trend will continue, well beyond Trump’s blip in history, as long as platforms continue to consume a fourth estate that faces an intractable choice between cooperation and independence.