In the first presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney scored a surprise victory by switching up his style. Barack Obama had obviously prepared to attack the Republican nominee and former hedge fund executive for the archconservative economic proposals he had been campaigning on. Romney disarmed him by simply denying having taken the positions he’d taken—insisting, for example, that his tax policies wouldn’t favor the wealthy. He threw the unflappable Obama off his game by presenting a more moderate version of himself than the one the country had seen on the campaign trail.
Donald Trump, it hardly needs to be said, did not follow Romney’s example last night. The president was, if anything, a more petulant and antagonistic version of his usual self. He spent the bulk of the first debate relentlessly interrupting Joe Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. But his performance went beyond being impolite. In the most disturbing two moments of the debate, the president refused to agree to respect the results of the election or even to encourage voters to remain calm while votes are tallied; instead, he urged his supporters to go monitor the polls, a thinly veiled invitation to voter intimidation. And when Wallace repeatedly asked if he would disavow the white supremacists and militias causing violence in American cities, Trump deflected, asking someone to name a specific organization. When Biden suggested the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, Trump, far from denouncing them, instead said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
In some respects this was a familiar spectacle. Throughout his first term, reporters have repeatedly tried to pin Trump down on these questions, and his answers have always been equivocal at best. To some extent that could be chalked up to Trump’s defensive instincts. His “we’ll have to see what happens” answers could have been, in part, the improvisations of a man unsure of the optimal position and wary of pinning himself into the wrong one. The difference last night was that he knew the questions were coming. The debate topics had been announced in advance. Pulling a Romney—“Of course I disavow white supremacy, and of course I encourage voters to respect the democratic process”—would have been the easiest thing in the world. And yet Trump did not do it. His encouragement of white supremacist groups was not a gaffe. It was a statement of policy.
Like many tech reporters, I watched the debate with a blank document open, waiting for the discussion to venture into a substantive policy area that I cover. That didn’t happen, of course. And yet, even though they didn’t come up, I couldn’t help but think about social media platforms as I watched last night’s bizarre spectacle. We tech reporters like to beat up on Twitter, YouTube, and, especially, Facebook, for the ways in which their algorithms steer users to inflammatory content and for their failures to curb the spread of dangerous misinformation. These criticisms are largely accurate. But they also sometimes veer into wishful thinking—if only Mark Zuckerberg got his act together, American politics would get back to normal, and we could stop wondering whether democracy will survive the election. The next time you read about a misleading political video that goes viral with 500,000 views, keep in mind that last night’s debate was probably seen by more than 80 million people. Facebook and Twitter banned accounts associated with the Proud Boys two years ago (though some pages have still managed to get through). But when the president of the United States is egging on right-wing thugs on national television, you remember that there’s a limit to what platform moderation can accomplish.
Still, social media platforms have obviously come to play a major role in our political life, whether they like it or not. It took only moments for the group to turn Trump’s debate shout-out into an online rallying cry. There are some encouraging signs that the platforms are taking their responsibility more seriously this year than they did in 2016. Trump’s debate performance was a reminder that they can’t take it seriously enough.
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