SO, even when he finally conceded defeat and threw the Capitol Hill rioters he incited under the bus, Donald Trump did it on Twitter.

Two mins and 41 seconds (the official rules for tweeted video are two mins and 20 seconds, so some presidential licence there) of manifestly legalled prose, precisely spoken, which may or may not save him from charges of sedition and insurrection.

But it came to me, as it maybe came to you, on a smartphone during a suburban shop-run, transmitted to islands far away from the Oval Office. You pause, put down the laden for-life shopping bags, and absorb the latest atrocious performance. And then, with a dollop of Trump in your head wreaking not quite predictable effects, you trundle on with your day.

The end of the Trump presidential era (though maybe the beginning of another kind) generates profound relief, but also some head-slapping memories. Didn’t he essentially propose nuclear war with North Korea? Didn’t he respond to the George Floyd uprisings with “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”? He did, he did.

The latter two, and many more disasters, were uttered on his social media of choice, the 280-character, image-and-video publishing platform Twitter (Trump has published 32,000 times since entering formal politics). The company finally banned him temporarily as a result of his successful incitement to riot on the grounds of the US Senate (though for months Twitter has been placing refutations on his updates, when he predicted corruption in the postal vote of the November election).

The commentariat has been severe on these companies. What has it finally taken for social media platforms – like Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in recent days – to ban Trump’s hate-speech and incitements from their services? A coup, really?

It’s general knowledge, especially after the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, that the basic business model of social media relies on controversy. The more infuriated and involved the interactions, the bigger their number, and the more information can be processed for advertisers.

Indeed, as Trump often reminded the hated “fake” liberal media, his bad behaviour was a money-maker for them. Witness the rise of the New York Times, for example, as a progressive behemoth straddling old and new media. Anti-Trump constituencies have dug into their pockets to support them with subscriptions.

Will anything be done about social media’s polemic inferno in the coming Biden administration? Will they try to create some regulatory possibilities, and stop egregious digital profits hiding behind a “free-speech” defence?

It would have to be more coherent than Trump’s own attempt, based in his belief in the liberal bias of media businesses. Trump wanted to revoke that part of US communication law (Section 230) that means websites and platforms cannot be sued or prosecuted for content posted by their visitors.

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If they could be sued, then they’d be super-nervous about allowing such content … including, er, serial slanderers and abusers like Trump himself (he’s not quite thought it through there. Nevertheless, keep an eye out for Senator Josh Hawley, who pushes this policy and is a shiny Trump 2.0 prospect). Yet to what extent can the fury and frenzy of American society, and others, really be wholly pinned on these engines of polarisation? Are we just passive before their endless algorithmic tweaking of signals and stimuli, keeping us in their zone?

The context is bigger than this. Any political scientist worth their salt will tell you that scepticism towards official government has been deepening internationally for decades.

The populisms we’re going through, say many analysts, is the peak reverberation from the 2007-8 financial crash – where bankers skipped away from their crimes scot-free and the gap between the super-rich and the struggling widened.

The penny eventually dropped

with the populace.

So when this long-standing disgruntlement meets these social technologies – which endlessly and creatively answer our appetite for status, novelty and community – it’s an inflammatory match. Almost literally.

Yes, there are political entrepreneurs who can skilfully stoke up and target this machinery (do a Google search on a character called Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager – and you can instantly see how fiendish the crossovers can be between tech, marketing and ideology). But there’s a nagging question to be asked here, and it’s much more about us, and our powers of self-mastery over our bodies and psyches, than these systems’ ability to capture our engagement.

In his brilliant book on the politics of social media, The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour suggests that we mainly give ourselves over to devices like Twitter “because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living”.

This comes at great cost. “Given the time this addiction demands of us”, writes Seymour, “we are entitled to ask what else we might be doing, what else we could be addicted to.”

Twitter and its companions “reduces information to meaningless stimuli which it jet-sprays at us … they habituate us to being the manipulable conduits of informational power.”

There may be “a fascist potential” in this, muses Seymour. But that potential itself might be rooted in a desire for a kind of numbness. It’s reminiscent of what psychologists observe in gamblers. They get into a “machine zone” where “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process”.

And I’ll admit, as I picked up my shopping bags again and trudged home, the feeling that the Trump tweet left me with wasn’t any kind of exultation at his leaving. My mood was more, “well that’s happened, and it’s slightly good news. What crazy, dispiriting thing is now going to happen next on Twitter (or social media in general)?”

The dark question Seymour poses is whether we actively want to waste our time on these platforms. As a US review of the book paraphrases him: “However much we might complain, we find satisfaction in endless, circular argument. We get some kind of fulfilment from tedious debates about ‘free speech’ and ‘cancel culture’. We seek oblivion in discourse.”

I think that’s a slightly weird, but pretty recognisable observation – and a real caution to heavy Twitter users like myself (and I would guess, some of you too). To what extent are the stramashes on “Scottish Political Twitter” some kind of entranced compensation; something to fill up the void or lack of real political movement around Scottish independence?

This is not to say that Twittering and social networks can’t put feet on the street. In less pandemic days, the indy marches of All Under One Banner were a noble example of how the net can help organise real-world social activism. But we should try to observe ourselves, and our hearts, as we do any politics in these locked-down and virtualised conditions. What are we obsessing about, on these turbo-charged channels of consciousness? They are not a substitute for full and hands-on public citizenship, conducted in the built reality of our lives. As your mentors might tell you: keep the heid.

And apart from all the other alarm bells it rings, maybe this is the ultimate caution to be taken from the Capitol Hill costume-coup. The perpetrators took the dreampolitik of Trump’s social media activity for reality. They dressed themselves up in their fantasies of being a popular militia, a band of patriots, symbolised by that Yoga-teaching conspiracist in his moose-head hat.

In short, they cavorted like happy Tweeters in “their house”, taking selfies in their assorted uniforms, event T-shirts and jumbled armoury. I’m not sure that cat goes back into the bag very easily. You shape your tools, and then they shape you. Twitter may be a kind of weapon that we still haven’t figured out yet.