The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump was a center of gravity on Twitter. What’s it like without him?

(Washington Post staff illustration; photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

What happens when the center of gravity disappears?

Twitter is made of various small galaxies, from film Twitter to Black Twitter to NBA Twitter. One of the biggest is — or, we should say, was — Trump Twitter. It constituted a solar system all its own, replete with supporters eagerly retweeting his missives, reply guys rushing to correct every utterance, comedians hoping to score a quick joke and journalists turning each one into a story.

Trump’s tweets reached far, far beyond his more than 88 million followers. Peter Dodds, a researcher who has studied 10 percent of everything tweeted from every day since 2008, said Trump’s name is mentioned on Twitter almost as often as “function words” such as “after” and “the.” But on Friday, Twitter banned the president, citing two tweets that it claimed “could inspire others to replicate violent acts.” Setting ethical arguments about the ban aside leaves one question: What is a solar system without its sun? Love or hate it, the gravitational pull of his Twitter account was immense. Without it, what does Twitter feel like?

“I palpably feel his absence,” Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, said in a Twitter direct message. “The political neighborhoods of Twitter are as nasty as ever, but there is something missing.”

Trump’s Twitter account made him feel accessible, Stelter said. “When the president is in your Twitter stream, it changes your relationship with the presidency. There’s the potential for a personal connection,” he said. “With Trump, however, his tweets alienated many more people than they inspired. Instead of social media, he employed anti-social media. Now the relationship is severed.”

Comedian Michael Ian Black, who routinely tweets a mix of jokes and political commentary to his 1.9 million followers, summed up the new landscape in a tweet: “The New Tone is silence. I like it.”

Black had long ago stopped retweeting Trump, even if he had a great joke, because it felt like “rewarding someone for throwing a tantrum by giving him attention,” he told The Washington Post. Still, he was usually aware of what Trump was saying.

“Twitter has felt different the last couple of days. It feels like there’s a hole there that others are rushing to fill,” he said. “If the center of gravity is gone somewhere, something else has to take that center.”

Rather than a single person taking up the mantle as Center of the Twitterverse, Black predicts the platform “will find a new kind of equilibrium, which will probably be pretty similar to the pre-2015 equilibrium, where there’s just voices that kind of rise and fall.”

He hopes the ban will teach others that “if they want to be on the platform, they have to respect the terms of service in the same way that, ultimately [Trump] had to” and that it “makes people a little more thoughtful.”

“I’m not looking for deeper analysis or better takes or anything, because nobody is capable of that. We’re all idiots,” he added. “But at the very least, I think people will be less inclined to just lash out and, you know, to wish death to people, to threaten people, to hurl the kind of invectives that have become so common.”

The tweets that define a presidency

For many Trump supporters, such as Damani Felder, the founder of the conservative YouTube channel “The Right Brothers” who feels like the media hasn’t fairly covered the president’s accomplishments, the landscape feels markedly emptier.

Felder had an alert set up for Trump’s tweets so he could retweet them to his more than 183,000 followers, “especially when topics such as race relations, and law and order were broached,” he said.

Now, that alert is silent. Felder sees Twitter as “a 21st-century public square in which individuals should feel free to give their thoughts on whatever they choose.” With part of that square hushed, he fears that a certain connection between the American people and the president has been lost.

“His absence on the platform leaves a considerable void, both for those who support him and those who rush to respond vitriolically to him without fail,” Felder said. “I know many individuals considered it his own special medium to connect with the everyday men and women of America.”

Others, meanwhile, cheer on the Trump-shaped hole left on the platform — with a bit of ambivalence. Unsurprisingly, that number includes Andrew Lazar, an Arizona-based small business owner who set up a Twitter account with the handle @SuspendThePres. “I tweet what the President tweets. Will Twitter suspend me?” reads its bio. (Spoiler alert: Twitter did not suspend the account.)

Given Twitter’s rules regarding bots, Lazar had to manually repost everything Trump tweeted, a task he called “calamitous” and “downright exhausting.”

“When starting the experiment [last May], it was never my intention to become part of and help guide some large movement to get the president’s account suspended,” he said. “It did, however, grow into that.”

For him, the ban offers some sort of reprieve from his self-imposed duties. Still, Lazar said, “The truth is I’ve become uncomfortably numb. There’s an air of ambivalence to it all. On one hand, I’m thrilled it’s over. On the other, I’m deeply saddened it had to ever come down to it.”

Trump targets ‘negative press covfefe’ in garbled midnight tweet that becomes worldwide joke

Seth Abramson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, author of “Proof of Corruption” and a prominent Trump critic, feared “Trump’s Twitter feed gave journalists an unfortunate opportunity to focus more on his words than on his actions.”

Abramson became one of the most prominent voices calling for Trump’s removal from the platform in 2017. Three years later, it finally happened — alongside his campaign’s handle (@TeamTrump) and various QAnon accounts, among others. Abramson considers that a victory, though he wishes it occurred long ago.

“I think the stock of disinformation on Twitter is measurably diminished by the removal of all those accounts all at once,” he said.

Still, a social media specter of sorts remains. His absence is a presence, as Jazz Wolfe pointed out.

The 20-year-old journalism and microbiology student at the University of Oklahoma enjoyed reading Trump’s more outlandish tweets to friends. “It was a source of entertainment,” Wolfe said. (Their favorite of all time was Trump’s 9/11 remembrance tweet from 2013, which read, “I would like to extend my best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special date, September 11th.”)

“Twitter is definitely different now, because he was kind of the one thing that everyone on Twitter either followed or would check,” Wolfe said, adding that they aren’t seeing people retweet Trump or discussing his latest message. “But people are still talking about him, because they’re talking about the fact that he doesn’t have a Twitter anymore.”

“He’s not really gone,” Wolfe added.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. What was likely to be the panel’s final public hearing has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.

Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.

What we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6: New details emerged when Hutchinson testified before the committee and shared what she saw and heard on Jan. 6.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.