The labels did, however, provide insights into how those who run the platforms were thinking at the time. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, the platforms seemed to say, but the labels resembled just a few more additional fluorescent tubes installed in the ceiling.
In short, the tech platforms responded to challenges of user moderation with performances of helplessness hiding assertions of power. These firms wrote the rules for their users. They chose when not to enforce them. The labels told us what was wrong and what wasn’t going to be done about it. They may as well have said “good luck.” Then came Jan. 6.
What Is Real Life — and Is It Twitter?
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Twitter isn’t real life” in reference to any number of situations where the consensus of some group of people on the service collided with an external reality. (The Biden campaign, for example, embraced the mantra before and after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the Democratic primary.)
Much of the time this point is made with an eye roll — get off the computer, get outside, talk to people who aren’t tweeting all the time if you want to know what’s really happening. Of course, it’s the sort of thing you hear most of all on Twitter itself, where it once sounded wise but, over the years, has started to sound, sometimes, like wishful thinking that borders on desperation, especially when it comes from people — and I will only claim to be talking about myself here, other reporters can speak for themselves — who owe so much to the service, professionally, that talking about it without some sort of disclosure feels borderline unethical. (Imagine the informational label: “This reporter reads Twitter in bed on both sides of the day.”)
To be fair, Twitter changed fast. In 2015, it was novel, newsworthy, but mostly understood as a joke when Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush traded insults on Twitter. By 2017, President Trump was attempting to make border policy with tweets.
Three years after that, lawmakers, alongside hordes of regular users, were using the platform to beg Twitter’s chief executive to ban the president to keep American democracy intact, as the president himself used it to claim an election he lost. There was no ignoring Twitter without ignoring Mr. Trump, and there was definitely no ignoring Mr. Trump.