For whom the Trump trolls with tweet­ing

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - PERSPECTIVE - MAU­REEN DOWD ▶ Mau­reen Dowd writes for The New York Times.

Don­ald Trump was pro­foundly af­fected by watch­ing his older brother, Freddy, die from al­co­holism at 43.

He pros­e­ly­tized against drink­ing and smok­ing, warn­ing his kids away from those vices. Even with his casi­nos, Trump wasn’t a gam­bler, ei­ther, say­ing he’d rather own slot ma­chines than play them.

And yet, in a strange twist, Trump has ended up an ad­dict.

One of the more chill­ing things I’ve heard re­cently came from Jaron Lanier, the Sil­i­con Val­ley found­ing fa­ther whose new book is “Ten Ar­gu­ments for Delet­ing Your So­cial Me­dia Ac­counts Right Now.”

Lanier, who met Trump a cou­ple of times back in the real es­tate de­vel­oper’s New York hey­day, thinks the pres­i­dent’s ad­dic­tion to tweet­ing is rewiring his brain in a neg­a­tive way. As Trump picks up speed on Twit­ter, the Oval Of­fice is be­com­ing a Skin­ner box. Like other “be­hav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion em­pires,” as Lanier calls so­cial me­dia sites, Twit­ter of­fers pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment for neg­a­tiv­ity.

“Twit­ter ad­dicts take on this kind of ner­vous, para­noid, cranky qual­ity, sort of itch­ing for a fight,” Lanier said. “Trump used to be in on his own joke, and he no longer is. He’s just strik­ing out ev­ery morn­ing, fish­ing for some­body to ha­rass or see­ing who’s ha­rass­ing him.

“I do think it cre­ates a ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion be­cause some­body who is ad­dicted is easy to ma­nip­u­late. It’s eas­ier for the North Kore­ans to lie to him than if he wasn’t an ad­dict.”

And the hos­til­ity and in­sen­si­tiv­ity that so eas­ily flow from his fin­gers now de­fine his im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

I saw a re­port on PBS about a mother on the bor­der who was reunited with her 14-month-old child af­ter 85 days. “The child con­tin­ued to cry when we got home and would hold on to my leg and would not let me go,” the mother wrote. “When I took off his clothes, he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”

On the oc­ca­sion of Amer­ica’s 242nd birth­day, we must ask who we are, if we can see ac­counts of in­fants snatched from their par­ents and re­turned cov­ered in lice, and not worry about our coun­try’s soul.

Is Trump mak­ing the whole coun­try meaner, coarser and less em­pa­thetic? Or was the pump primed for a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure like him be­cause the in­ter­net had al­ready made Amer­ica meaner, coarser and less em­pa­thetic? Did they hap­pen si­mul­ta­ne­ously?

Launch­ing a come­back, Twit­ter re­cast it­self in a harsher light. The com­pany, The New York Times’ Farhad Man­joo wrote, “tweaked its cen­tral feed to highlight vi­ral­ity, turn­ing Twit­ter into a bruis­ing bar­room brawl fea­tur­ing the most con­tentious po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural fights of the day.”

Man­joo told me: “Now when you log in, they show you the most in­ter­est­ing tweets you missed while you were away. They highlight the tweets of peo­ple ar­gu­ing, the big news brawls of the day, as a way to en­gage the rest of the au­di­ence. That makes it a meaner place.”

This, even as Twit­ter — un­der pres­sure like the rest of Sil­i­con Val­ley for let­ting the mon­sters get out of con­trol — is de­vel­op­ing “health met­rics” to pro­mote ci­vil­ity and com­mu­ni­cate “more holis­ti­cally.”

It will be hard for Twit­ter to be­come more civil and holis­tic given that in Jan­uary it in­sti­tuted a world lead­ers pol­icy ex­empt­ing a cer­tain head of state from any tem­per­ing ef­forts. “Block­ing a world leader from Twit­ter or re­mov­ing their con­tro­ver­sial tweets would hide im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion peo­ple should be able to see and de­bate,” the com­pany said.

That leaves Trump free to grab his phone at all hours to shove and to smear and to spew false­hoods.

We have a pres­i­dent who is an ad­dict run­ning a coun­try over­flow­ing with opi­oid and so­cial me­dia ad­dicts.

Art Mark­man, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin who has lamented the ex­traor­di­nar­ily ag­gres­sive on­line com­ments at me­dia out­lets, hopes peo­ple will re­sume a sense of deco­rum when they re­al­ize “there’s very lit­tle long-term profit from a vi­ral tweet.”

“We don’t have to cater to those mean spir­ited in­stincts,” he said. “We can be bet­ter than that.”

But I don’t think Trump can. He fig­ured out how to dom­i­nate Twit­ter by be­ing school­yard-bully mean.

His tweets pro­pel the story on cable news and shape the nar­ra­tive for re­porters — who are ad­dicted to the First Ad­dict.

For Trump, who is also an at­ten­tion ad­dict, that is about as holis­tic as it’s go­ing to get.

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