An Exchange of Words

Trump, Trudeau, Tweets, Truth: 
A Conversation
Bill Fox
McGill-Queen’s Press
599 pages

Just as I cracked the spine of this book, a darkness fell over Twitter. Elon Musk took ownership, and the consuming topic of Twitter became the future of Twitter. An entire online community was suddenly aware of its own mortality.

As Musk dismissed the platform’s content moderators and reactivated accounts that had been banned for inciting harm to others – most emblematically, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, founder of the white supremacist web site Daily Stormer – more moderate souls scrambled for the lifeboats over at Mastodon and Post.News, or threatened to, hoping to find an alternative forum that would reproduce what Twitter once promised, without the bullies or the venom. Good luck to them.

There was even a brief, fleeting hope that the market would undo the damage of Musk’s ownership by erasing Twitter itself: the mass dismissal of employees and a mass desertion of advertisers would plunge the platform into chaos and insolvency, its users flung to other sites like delegates at a broken convention. In order to save it, the village would have to be destroyed.

As of this writing, the lights are still on, and even those who detest Musk continue to scroll and tweet despite him, however grudgingly. But the prospect of a world without Twitter had been broached, prompting us to consider anew what the platform has become to us, and what it has meant for civic discourse and the project of liberal democracy. Because unlike Instagram or Pinterest or Medium, Twitter has assumed a centrality of place in the political theatre, becoming over the span of a few short years the main stage on which the cut and thrust of partisan dueling plays out. What Etsy is to people who make jewelry at home, Twitter is to the political flame wars waged between worked-up citizens bunkered in their basements.

Which begs the question of how Twitter has managed to entwine itself so fixedly in the political nervous system. If a magazine dies, there are other magazines to take its place. If an airline goes bankrupt people still fly on airplanes. If a telecom company goes out of business, it does not shut down telecommunications. But if Twitter were to disappear, politics as we know it would undergo a seizure. There would be a rupture in the supply chain. There is a reason it’s Twitter and not Facebook that is mentioned so prominently right in the title of Trump, Trudeau, Tweets, Truth, despite the fact that Facebook is by far the larger platform. Worldwide, Twitter has 206 million daily users. Facebook has 1.98 billion. Twitter doesn’t even make money. On $5 billion in revenue in 2021, it lost $221 million (albeit an improvement over 2020, when it lost $1.1 billion).

Bill Fox’s Trump, Trudeau, Tweets, Truth is an extended meditation on what has become of political discourse in the 21st century, when the news media of old, beggared by changed circumstances, are denigrated as yesterday’s gatekeepers, while the one thing the shouting match of social media will not tolerate is a gatekeeper. How, Fox asks, can rational actors “manage” the media when even the billionaires who own the social media platforms insist the content that courses over them cannot, and should not, be managed?

This is an old hand worrying away at a new problem, and Fox is singularly well placed to reflect on it. There is likely no one in this country with his mix of credentials and experience. He grew up in Timmins, Ont., a hard rock mining town where he sold copies of the Timmins Daily Press to miners coming off the day shift, and where, as he says, the one thing you knew was that you were going to get out, and your parents worked hard so that when the time came you were able to do so. 

Journalism was his way out. He studied at Carleton University, where the Ottawa Citizen snapped him up. He went on to become Ottawa bureau chief and then Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star. Then the leap into politics. He became Press Secretary and then Director of Communications for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the years when the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement was being hammered out. From there, the shift into business. He became vice president in the executive suites of some of the most prominent Canadian corporations: CN, Bombardier, Bell Canada Enterprises, overseeing communications and public affairs. Which is to say, managing the media. 

Throughout all this he had taken a Master’s degree at Carleton (his thesis was the basis for his book Spinwars, published in 1999) and spent a year at Harvard as a Shorenstein Fellow. And then he made his shift into academia and teaching, taking his Ph.D. at Carleton and fellowships at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton. (Full disclosure: I taught him in a core graduate seminar on Journalism and Society and sat on his doctoral committee, but don’t read too much into that. Someone taught Intro to Economics to John Maynard Keynes, but it doesn’t mean they had much of a hand in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.)

Fox has always been fascinated by how the provision of information and the forum of debate have been conducted and organized, and the relation between the two. He has always thought of this in terms of the “effects” the media have on society – which is as good a way to think of it as any. Whether old school or new-fangled, the media are institutional actors that clearly affect other institutions and therefore how a society conducts itself. News media coverage and spikes of public attention via social media can have an impact – an effect – on everything from schools and health care to the bus system and garbage removal. But neither the hospital system nor the sanitation department have much of an effect on the media. 

In the United States, the formal study of communication was born with the broadcast media, which themselves left no trace of their audiences out there in what the CBC’s Allan McFee used to call “Vacuumland.” In the movies, ticket sales provided immediate data on how many people watched specific films, but radio and TV advertisers wanted to know precisely how many people were tuning in which programs, and in order to know that someone had to go out into the field and count them. As well, the broadcast media seemed to possess remarkable powers of persuasion, and both advertisers and government wanted to quantify these in order to harness them. From the beginning, American communication studies were steeped in the scientistic search to measure exactly how the media influenced individual attitudes and behaviour. (No one had thought to inquire into the “effects” of literature, theatre, or the arts on society, but then literature, theatre and the arts were not being used to sell denture adhesives and hemorrhoid ointments.) 

Fox is perfectly aware that this entire enterprise was doomed – it is simply not possible to isolate and specify the persuasive effects of something as multi-faceted as “the media” on something as complex as “society,” and certainly not in any way that is generalizable. So, the Mad Men effort to pinpoint how to persuade people was all very scientific and yet not scientific at all. It generated torrents of findings that yielded next to no predictive punch. But this is not how Fox thinks of media effects.

Instead, he is indebted to the American scholar James Carey, who pointed out that the U.S., a nation born of western expansion and the appropriation of Indigenous lands, conceived of communication in terms borrowed from the telegraph and the railroad: communication was the delivery of networked messages across space for the purposes of control and dominion. (This, by the way, is how Musk thinks of Twitter. As he tweeted on Dec. 4: “The intelligence of this hive-mind will improve significantly as signal/noise, effective cross-linking of tweets & speed of tweets all improve.”) Communication, for Americans, was synonymous with transmission.

Europeans, Carey observed, thought of communication quite differently, not as the transmission of messages through space, but as the means by which shared understandings are forged and perpetuated – the propagation of values over time. This, Carey pointed out, was how a sense of community came to be, via perpetual communication that was akin to a form of ritual. According to this view, the true efficacy of the media lay in how they worked to fix a society’s fundamental terms of understanding. Their most powerful effects were not their ability to persuade people to buy one hair care product over another, but to embrace an ethos of consumerism, for example, whereby personal identity was the sum total of all the consumer choices one made. (As Ulysses Everett McGill insists proudly in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “I’m a Dapper Dan man!”)

Carey’s main intellectual influences were the American philosopher John Dewey and the Canadian communication scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, but his arguments were consistent with those of the Frankfurt School and the European post-structuralists, although stripped of the Europeans’ unhelpful Marxism. The study of communication then cleaved into two broad camps: quasi-scientific “administrative” research, which sought to wrest actionable knowledge about the media in order to exploit their persuasive powers, and interpretive “critical” research, which worked to expose the mechanisms through which values, beliefs and ideologies were formed, contested, and re-formed. For the administrative school, and for Elon Musk, the metaphor for social communication was a neural network of signals triggering synaptic responses. For Carey, the metaphor was a ceaseless conversation – a cocktail party without end.

Fox is a Carey man to his core (as am I, for that matter), but he is also administrative in his aims. Ultimately, he wants to “operationalize” Carey. He wants to press Carey’s understandings into not only making sense of the new information order dominated by social media, but to do so in a way that would yield workable navigational tools. For Fox, the former information manager for government and business, it’s not enough to simply appreciate that society is a ceaseless conversation. You have to know how to tend the conversation so that it doesn’t turn toxic, and how to steer it when necessary. 

In his latest work Government, the eminent political scientist Donald J. Savoie points out that these days more than half of the time and attention of government – politicians and the public service alike – is taken up with dealing with the media and public perception. A century ago, government communication was little more than a matter of letting the right journalists know what the government intended. Today, government has to fight for attention and against misperception, not to say willful misrepresentation, every passing moment. In this bewildering environment, Fox would like to be of some service. Journalists in the new information order will have to rethink their role and methods, while the adept media manager will have to be able to anticipate spikes of social media hysteria before they happen, and if taken by surprise to react knowledgeably. The adept media manager needs to know what to do when all hell breaks loose, and the world of social media is one in which all hell breaks loose all the time.

So, the book reviews one media moment of the recent past after another, from the death of Colten Boushie to the #MeToo reckoning; from the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair to #BlackLivesMatter. It is not only propellingly readable but written in a style appropriate to its subject matter. A living sponge for everything he has read and heard over the course of his formal studies of the subject, Fox unspools key points and observations in one long filament of aperçus, and the entire effect is like scrolling through a Tumblr or Twitter feed, with the difference that this, being a book and not a Twitter feed, carries a coherence and adds up to something.

Myself, I’m not sure that what it adds up to is a playbook for the contemporary media manager. Each of his pocket case studies is insightful, but they don’t offer a flowchart for the future. Even his central, sustained case study – of the media storm that engulfed Bell Canada Enterprises in 2007 when he was V.P. of corporate development and communications, and rumours of an impending takeover broke – offers little guidance for how the incident might have unfolded differently.

The crisis for the company was ignited by news coverage, a leak to the Globe and Mail, and in Fox’s account the journalists mucked it up. Not because they were dishonest or false, but because they didn’t really know what was going on, but this didn’t prevent them from publishing shards of information that begged interpretation and buffeted stock prices. The chapter is an illustration of how partial and halting journalistic coverage can be, as reporters glimpse the big story in bits and pieces, while the business titans circling the prize use the media as a means to signal and bluff one another, like Krushchev and Kennedy negotiating via coded statements to the press.

It is particularly revealing as testimony from inside the maelstrom of a media frenzy – here is a rare account of what that is like. But this and his other case studies only underscore that there is no manual for what to do when things blow up. In the end, what one needs is a cool head and the right instincts – although, as the book makes clear, instincts can be cultivated, informed, and honed with experience. The best preparation for being in combat is having been in combat before.

And then there’s Trump, whose name is the first word in the title of the book, because here’s a guy with unmatched social media instincts. With his feral cunning, his monstrous ego, his utter lack of conscience and his multitudes of adulatory followers, he is the undisputed master of Twitter. He currently displays his mastery by not returning to the platform even though Musk has lifted the expulsion order that was imposed by the previous management. With every passing second, he might tweet anew. Or he might not. He is lurking over Twitter in a way no one else could. 

Fox credits Trudeau with different social media instincts. He was not made by Twitter, but he is perfectly at ease on social media in a way that, say, Stephen Harper could never be. There are a lot of people who really, really don’t like Justin Trudeau, and this is one of the things they don’t like about him – what they see as his smarmy mediagenic persona, an act he puts on for the selfie cameras. 

Smarmy or not, it is a persona that can be reproduced by a team. Justin Trudeau does not write every single tweet that goes out under his name. He has people to do that. Whereas Trump – well, there was never any doubt that throughout his presidency he wrote those tweets himself. Trump was his own media management team. If in only this respect, Trump is the more authentic.

And what of the health of the Carey-esque conversation in which democracy is rooted? Twitter is not the whole of that conversation, but it plays an outsized role in political discourse. Fox does not bemoan the rise of Twitter; he wants instead to come to grips with what it entails, its effects on political reality. One wonders what he would make of Musk’s stewardship thus far. Because if what you prize is authenticity, and fancy yourself a genius, then of course you let neo-Nazis back into democracy’s chatroom. 

Musk, like Trump, is clearly both a savant and an idiot. Those who decry what he is doing to the platform in the name of free speech believe his puerile libertarianism in the virtual realm of Twitter is wreaking genuine harm back in the real world, because it is empowering the most vicious extremists. Musk, for his part, sees no distinction between the virtual world of Twitter and the real world. He thinks the former should not only map but supersede the other. Since there are neo-Nazis and white supremacists and misogynists and racists in the world at large, so they should be represented in his metaverse. 

What Musk doesn’t understand is that politics is the means human societies have created to curb and control the worst of our impulses. To deliberately give licence to the worst of us is to attack politics itself.

  • The Hill Times, December 19, 2022