‘This has not occurred earlier than’: Tech historian on Trump, social media, and an unprecedented second in American historical past

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President Donald Trump speaks with Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Jan. 4. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian, Public Domain, via Flickr.)

Twitter’s decision Friday to join Facebook in permanently suspending President Trump’s account underscored the fundamental role of social media in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. If it feels strange and unusual, that’s because there’s no historical precedent, neither in media nor the presidency.

“This has not happened before,” said Margaret O’Mara, a historian, author and University of Washington professor, speaking on the GeekWire podcast.

“Particularly in the modern period, what the president says and does has always been covered, because it’s always been newsworthy,” said O’Mara, who specializes in the history of tech and politics. “Particularly as the presidency grew into becoming the most important job on the planet, and the U.S. was becoming a military and economic superpower, what the president said mattered — it had credibility.”

Margaret O’Mara is a University of Washington history professor whose latest book is “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.” (Jim Garner Photo)

Trump may be a president like no other, but social media platforms have also been put into a role for which they weren’t well-designed, O’Mara said.

They “became political town squares, but they’re not designed to be that,” she said. “They’re designed to sell ads on the internet.”

O’Mara recalled the early optimism about social media as a tool for democracy, bringing the country together. While these platforms can still be a unifying force, technology has also become a platform for organizing “violent acts and insurrection, and creating an alternate reality,” as the events of the past week showed.

“That’s the problem with the curated news feed,” she said. “It’s perfect for selling ads. It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing business model. It is not a great way to get the full spectrum of what’s going on in the world.”

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Even without a direct precedent, American history does provide some hints about what could come next, O’Mara said. The tech sector has flourished in an environment of deregulation, but the history of television and radio in the U.S. shows that there can be a constructive role for regulation, as well.

“When you recognize there’s always been that presence, then it isn’t a matter of government coming in, it’s a matter of reframing that existing relationship in a way that’s a little more fair and gives the users and consumers and other competitors more room and more rights in the whole process,” she said.

The role of technology in the head-spinning events of the past week is our first topic on a new episode of the GeekWire Podcast.

Listen above or subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app.

We also discuss the future of Seattle, Silicon Valley and other established tech hubs in the aftermath of the pandemic, a topic of O’Mara’s recent New York Times opinion column, “California May Lose Some of Its Stars. But Silicon Valley Is Forever.”

O’Mara’s take on the issue is more nuanced than the headline might suggest. While tech leaders are looking to places like Austin and Miami as alternatives, she writes, the boom in remote work is not the biggest threat to U.S. innovation hubs.

“The United States no longer invests like it used to, and a restrictive approach to immigration has placed a chill on the recruitment of foreign talent that will not easily be shaken off despite a change in administrations,” she writes in the piece. “After all, skilled and entrepreneurial people do not need to be in Silicon Valley to make it in tech. They don’t even need to come to the United States.”

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We wrap the show by asking O’Mara to share a few highlights from her bookshelf: “Uncanny Valley,” by Anna Wiener; “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor; and “The Cigarette: A Political History,” by Sarah Milov.

Podcast produced and edited by Curt Milton. Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

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