Yesterday evening, two different faces of internet power and caprice grimaced at the public.
First, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire CEO of the local-news publications DNAinfo and Gothamist shut down their websites. The decision came less than a week after writers at the publications had voted to organize. The DNAinfo and Gothamist websites, along with those of other local affiliates like DCist, Chicagoist, and LAist, redirected all traffic to a letter by Ricketts announcing the shuttering.
Second, for 11 brief minutes around 7 p.m. eastern time, Donald Trump’s Twitter account vanished. “This account doesn’t exist,” the website reported. It was quickly restored, and Twitter officials clarified that the removal was the rogue act of a customer-service employee on his or her last day at the company. Twitter vowed a full review to “prevent this from happening again.”
These two examples of exerting power online couldn’t appear more different. On the one hand, Ricketts, who is also the founder of TD Ameritrade, unilaterally closed the online, local-news business he’d purchased just seven months prior. Ricketts has a history of distaste for unions, and the sites’ writers reportedly faced threats for pondering unionization. When extreme wealth turns journalism into a hobby, the caprice of a rich owner can put 115 people out of jobs—not to mention erase years of their work.
On the other hand, the rogue Twitter employee, who has not yet been identified nor come forward, does not enjoy the arbitrary power afforded to heads of state or captains of industry. If Twitter’s response is accurate, the employee is a cog in a rote service role at a company of thousands, and doesn’t even appear to rise to the cultural and economic status of the technical employees who build and maintain a service like Twitter. Even so, he or she could interrupt, if temporarily, Trump’s direct channel to more than 41 million people.
It’s not a David-and-Goliath story, because the Goliaths won in the end—and quickly. But more importantly, the little guy and the titan didn’t combat one another directly, or conventionally. Instead, each contender created new chaos with unexpected tools, which disrupted their opponents in an oblique way. Ricketts didn’t fight unionization; he just shut down the business to avoid the matter entirely, an act that is not considered unfair labor practice. Likewise, the Twitter rogue didn’t make a case for policy or action against Trump or other potentially bad actors among the social network’s leadership; the employee, it seems, just flipped an easily accessible switch.
The internet has become the battlefield for this new type of asymmetrical power. Now that so much of life takes place online, it is also where the record of that life lives. For the journalists Ricketts put out of work, the homes for their portfolios are also lost. Their articles might be restored eventually, and other archives, like the Wayback Machine, could help. But in the short term, the writers put on the dole have no easy way to show their prior work when seeking new employment. Even if the entire matter blows over in days or weeks, Ricketts’s act serves as a reminder that information is mostly controlled by corporations, and those corporations have no commitment to long-term record keeping, let alone long-term employment.
Trump, meanwhile, has come to rely on Twitter as a primary means of reaching the public. Taking away that access, even for 11 minutes, should remind the president that he’s put a lot of eggs in the platform’s proverbial basket. Twitter has struggled with the question of what to do with Trump, but it may be that almost any employee has the capacity to choke off his channel to the public.
Trump sits in between Ricketts and the Twitter rogue. Also wealthy, he rose to political power through the same kind of hobbyism that pressed Ricketts to get into the news business. In that sense, he’s the robber barron. But Trump’s leadership style also has the impish tenor of the Twitter employee: It’s often by means of Twitter that Trump end-runs the usual process of governance.
The brief disappearance of his account renews public scrutiny over Twitter’s decision to turn a blind eye to Trump’s rule by text message. But it also underscores the precariousness of big data companies’ infrastructure.
It’s both delightful and terrifying to know that an apparently low-level employee can shut down the U.S. president. That same carelessness helps explain less amusing and more permanent consequences, from the Equifax breach to Russian election interference. What were the hackers and the Russian operatives doing, after all, but exploiting the very same weakness that allowed the Twitter employee to shut down @realDonaldTrump? It’s tempting to call Ricketts a villain and the Twitter employee a hero, but in truth, both are pulling on the same brittle levers that have made the contemporary social, economic, and political environment so lawless.
Companies like Twitter and Facebook are run by billionaires, just like Ricketts and Trump. They have also built the computer infrastructures that make it so easy to exploit those platforms. And so, the new technological gilded age creates an inequality far greater than wealth alone. It also fashions new hazards in the infrastructure of ordinary life. There are no winners here, for chaos runs everyone’s life online.