Sometimes a very silly film plot can illuminate the world around us. Today’s example is 1924’s The Hands of Orlac, in which an executed murderer’s hands retain their capacity for evil even after they are transplanted to Conrad Veidt’s upstanding concert pianist.
In The Hands of Orlac, an appendage guides the actions and morality of its bearer. Another appendage, Twitter, recently severed from its most enthusiastic bearer, Donald Trump, yesterday reported sluggish user growth. Its quarterly revenue was, however, at a record high. Its weaker-than expected uptake of “average monetisable daily active users” may be down to its attempts to encourage more “thoughtful” discussions around the US election.
Trump the demagogue and Trump the Twitter user grew up together. He used Twitter to tell stories that were necessarily reductive and, in his hands, inevitably harmful. Now that Trump is off the “hateful echo chamber” of social media, he is apparently much happier. One of the chief beneficiaries of Donald Trump’s social media ban is Donald Trump.
My film comparison runs out here. Trump was not a thoroughly decent chap whose Twitter account took on a mind – and a presidency – of its own. The forces that instigated, defined, and refused to end the Trump presidency were bigger than a website. But they were helped by it. The desire to constrain such damaging forces has motivated governments worldwide to recognise their responsibility to police content.
Here’s where one’s (well, my) churlish desire to cheer Twitter’s poor results should end. In the west, it is almost our privilege to see government figures abuse or constrain social media. It is almost our privilege to see social media as the wicked hands stitched onto our unwilling society. We can forget social media’s positive, radical power to connect and enfranchise. This remains a threat to more straightforward despots, who, like Myanmar’s new regime, have banned the platforms outright.
We are still in the early days of social media but the US election may have inaugurated a new era, one defined by increasing regulation. We are many successes and failures away from finding out whether this change is for the better. If, however, constraining the hands of social media can lead to one more contented retirement in Florida, perhaps it will be worth it.