Facebook is weakening democracy | Analysis
The past month has seen the social media content policy debate flare up to dizzying heights. At the centre of the controversy is United States (US) President Donald Trump, who suggested on Twitter that implementing mail-in ballot voting for the presidential election would rig the US elections this November. The underlying tensions he is facing are clear — many people who would likely use mail-in ballots to vote in the presidential election would likely favour Democrats. So he claimed, rather falsely, that mail-ins are “substantially fraudulent”.
Twitter’s response was forceful. The offence was clear: Trump’s tweet constituted harmful and politically-charged misinformation about voting, which is the most sanctified process in any democracy. For the first time, Twitter flagged a Trump tweet as potentially misleading — a bold act against a sitting president.
Trump hit back at the company. Within days, he issued an executive order that attempts to wrangle content moderation authority away from the industry and into the hands of the government. The presidential order is, according to most legal scholars, lazy and desperate. But it is perhaps one of the most legally challengeable policies in that it attempts to enforce overstepping the longstanding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity to Internet firms, including social media networks, over user-generated content that appears on the platform.
Refreshingly, Twitter did not back down. The next day, the company flagged yet another one of Trump’s tweets for inciting violence, this time on the George Floyd protests. Since then, Trump has raised the stakes, lashing out at Antifa (the anti-fascist movement who he blames for the protests) and describing the protesters as anarchists. This is significant as the company has essentially now asserted that he has both disseminated disinformation and incited violence.
If we were to judge Twitter’s actions, we have to say that the company has chosen to favour democratic interest over all else. Juxtapose Twitter’s response with the approach Facebook has taken — with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg suggesting that he does not wish to be the arbiter of truth. It now emerges that these two companies represent diametrically opposite forces. The employee walkouts and viral resignations in protest of Facebook’s shoulder-shrugging at Trump’s tweets are illustrative.
As many have argued, Facebook’s notion of protecting free speech is not protective at all. In fact, the policies espoused by Zuckerberg in Georgetown late last year are entirely in his firm’s commercial interest. It is quite possible that they have nothing to do with protecting users’ freedom of speech. In deciding not to flag or take down offensive content, Facebook protects its business. The company can leave offensive material, which is often among the most engaging content. This makes sure that it does not avoid alienating large constituencies that might see the president’s tweets favourably; and doesn’t voluntarily trigger the slippery slope of content regulation by setting policy boundaries itself.
At the heart of these issues is a fundamental tension: What does democracy mean when practised over digital platforms? Both Indian and western democratic systems have always had two fundamentally opposed ideals in institutionalism versus free speech. On the one hand, we have created institutional structures such as the government, the political system, and the radically capitalistic economic regime to build an intellectually free and open society. Over time, though, institutions may grow to enjoy excess power and germinate overbearing economic and social exploitation; we require individual intellectual independence — through freedom of expression — to push back on the undue concentration of power.
Indeed, free speech has always been applied to challenge governments and industries. But the commercial regime underlying the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has turned this checks-and-balance system internalised within functioning democracies upside down. Before the modern media age, citizens were naturally forced to be accountable for their speech — whether in print media, television, or public protest formats. Without the courage to publicly back your words, you couldn’t say them. Now, though, a new kind of economic logic has emerged that favours the algorithmic maximisation of consumer-media engagement at the expense of everything else. Such effects often favour the virality of extreme content because of its propensity to engage the mind. Thus, while Zuckerberg and his company hold to an even-harder free speech line, we must acknowledge that the norms of free speech themselves have been revolutionised by Facebook itself.
Inevitably, Trump’s clash with Twitter will place more pressure on policymakers, particularly members of Congress, to change the way content regulation works. Trump’s actions clarify that we need to set standards on speech issues so that our democratic norms do not topple. The light at the end of the tunnel is emerging in the effort to reconstruct Section 230. This is a growing sentiment, including with both the President and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. As this discussion progresses, Facebook will increasingly be seen as a media entity as opposed to agnostic global platforms — just fruits, perhaps, for a company that ranks and orders users’ online news and social feeds to determine what they see.
When seen in this light, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and his company, who have been far more proactive and progressive than Zuckerberg and Facebook, should receive high praise. Dorsey is telegraphing the actions of policymakers, projecting that there are elements of the democratic process that we should do our best to protect. This explains several of his and Twitter’s recent actions — the ban on political advertising, the statements against the marketised micro-targeting of communities with political communications, and this bevy of battles with President Trump included.
We can only hope, in our desire to preserve the structure of democracy as best as possible, that the other dominant digital platforms will follow suit.