The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump's tweets are famous. But this is the Facebook presidency.

He’s trapped in a bubble defined by his own likes and clicks. And we’re all stuck in it with him.

President Donald J. Trump winks and talks.
President Donald J. Trump winks and talks. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Interviewed by Laura Ingraham on Fox News recently, President Trump cited a false statistic that only 6 percent of covid-19 deaths were due to the disease itself. Gently pushed by Ingraham, he hedged slightly, calling it “an interesting statistic,” thus moving into the hazy well-it-could-be-true epistemological territory in which Trump and his followers thrive.

This is, by now, a familiar way of proceeding — not so much a strategy of press manipulation as Trump’s way of being in the world. When he is not outright dissembling, as he does often, the president impulsively finger-paints his own reality, assembling a worldview from bits of information drawn from disparate advisers, adoring cable news personalities, golf buddies, social media feeds and his strange brain, which, he assured us recently, definitely did not suffer “a series of mini-strokes” last year.

Sometimes, Trump’s comments are inscrutably abstract, but occasionally they can be rendered intelligible — or at least traced back to some original source. Regarding the 6 percent figure, Daniel Dale, CNN’s diligent Trump-checker, spelled out the chain of illogic: “The statistic went from a Facebook post to a QAnon person’s tweet to an article on the bonkers website Gateway Pundit citing the QAnon person’s tweet to Trump campaign advisor Jenna Ellis.” In that relay race through the Internet, we can see some of the hallmarks of Trump’s knowledge web — Facebook, QAnon, Twitter, a right-wing news outlet, a like-minded adviser who also reads fringe media and traffics in misinformation. What do they have in common? A willingness among participants to believe anything that satisfies their ideological or political priorities.

Trump is not a Facebook user, but he thinks like one, absorbing a confused mess of conspiracy theories, misinformation, random factoids, bad memes and racist rumors playing on the fears of the day. It might be more accurate to equate him to Facebook itself: His mind is ruled by black-box algorithms. But as with the social network’s news feed and recommendation systems, we can observe certain tendencies — especially toward extremism and an emphasis on the latest salacious news, its truth being secondary to its utility. Like Facebook, with its almighty metrics of likes and shares, Trump thinks only in terms of ratings. Popularity is a proxy for truth. A viral piece of misinformation isn’t a lie; it’s something “more and more people are talking about,” so the president should, too. His is, in effect, the first Facebook presidency, less a conventional authoritarian regime than an untamed information ecosystem in which the head of state drinks from the same toxic wellsprings of misinformation and extremism as the rest of us, while lacking any skepticism or self-awareness. As a result, a Facebook-originated rumor that reinforces his prejudices is far more valuable, more believable, than the informed expertise of credentialed bureaucrats or the privileged knowledge of the intelligence community.

I worked on political ads at Facebook. They profit by manipulating us.

The horror of Trump’s Facebook brain is that we all have to live with it. It creates policy, spreads deceit, defines speech standards on social media and drives the daily news cycle through its ever-multiplying absurdities. By the standards of today’s journalism, each ridiculously false statement must be taken seriously, at least outside of sycophantic Trumpist media outposts like Fox News and OAN. As a result, we have a flourishing fact-checking industry and a lengthy record of Trump’s falsehoods — and no way to curb his behavior or persuade the bulk of his supporters to adopt a healthy skepticism.

Today, it is easy to believe whatever one wants and to surround oneself with a cocoon of reinforcing opinion. Like Facebook, Trump’s brain creates alternate informational realities in which there’s room to believe anything. A perfect solipsist, Trump has faith only in himself and what he knows — or at least, what he’s heard and chosen to believe. In that way, he’s like a Facebook user trapped in a bubble defined by his own likes and clicks, along with the platform’s recommendation systems that have one main purpose: to keep him engaged.

In that same interview with Ingraham, Trump described a supposed planeload of “thugs,” clad in black and headed to a major city to cause mayhem. When pressed, the president became evasive and said more information would follow. NBC’s Ben Collins traced the obviously fake story to a June 1 Facebook post that described a flight from Seattle to Boise, Idaho, carrying “at least a dozen” men dressed in black. The post had been shared more than 3,000 times and had been picked up by militant groups. It was also, as Collins noted, in line with numerous other viral posts promising invasions of antifa sympathizers that invariably never materialized.

Subsequent reporting from the Daily Beast suggested that Trump’s anecdote might have been based on something similar that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) had said about a flight he took to Washington. Here, as on Facebook, the branching, associative chains are at once intuitively clear and hard to follow. You liked (or “liked”) one thing, so maybe you’ll also like this thing that’s sort of similar. The connective tissue of Facebook is rumor and urban legends, like old-fashioned chain letters, or email forwards, except these find their way to the president’s addled mind and not just your grandparents’ shared inbox.  

A key problem with Trump’s Facebook brain is that when he says something absurd, his advisers and handlers endeavor to make it a reality, often by posting supportive remarks on social media or filming spot interviews designed to go viral. And so, when asked on CNN about outside agitators flying en masse, Attorney General William P. Barr said: “There were many on planes. We’ve received multiple reports.” He didn’t offer any evidence. In the same interview, Barr advanced the unsubstantiated claim that Jacob Blake was armed when he was shot in Kenosha, Wis., and said he wasn’t sure whether it was illegal to vote more than once in some states. (Trump had recently suggested that supporters try to stuff ballot boxes to test voting systems.)

Mass propaganda used to be difficult, but Facebook made it easy

Like Facebook’s beleaguered content moderators, America’s fact-checkers can track the flows of bizarre remarks from fringe Facebook accounts to Trump’s Twitter feed. They can challenge him in direct interviews, a good-faith gesture destined to fail when the president operates from a place of total conviction and muddled, self-serving reason. None of it is enough. The lies continue, rumors metastasize, truth becomes fungible.

Just as toppling the Facebook monopoly seems an unlikely prospect, there is no easy escape from Trump’s Facebook brain. Each exerts an extraordinary gravitational pull over our politics and culture. Trump has popularized a worldview in which millions of people, like him, are able to construct their own ersatz realities, absorbing only the information they want to be true. It is a catastrophic form of the filter bubble that media theorists warned against a decade ago. Except this time, people aren’t just living in their own personalized realities, being spoon-fed algorithmically tuned news and advertisements. Now we’re all caught in Trump’s filter bubble, one that he at once engenders and enjoys — a world catering to his strange peccadilloes (like the supposed problem of shower water volume or the dangers of fictitious protesters who throw canned soup).

Even if you aren’t part of the 40 percent of the country that supports Trump, we’re all trapped in the Facebook feed that streams forth whenever he speaks. What he shares, we share in turn, if only to debunk the frightening falsehoods and plead with our friends who somehow still believe.

Correction: An earlier verion of this article misidentified Devin Nunes’ political party.

Twitter: @SilvermanJacob

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