The democratic dilemma posed by social media
The banning of Trump and others from Twitter and Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler made clear that the power to silence voices, whether of the one or of millions, lies with just three men on the planet – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No wonder defending democracy will be a huge and unenviable task for President Biden’s team.
I remember the day I was introduced to The Facebook. A Harvard undergraduate whom I had met in a class invited me via email to join this mysterious club. I created my (rudimentary) account, found it populated with only Harvard students, and unable to figure out its purpose beyond invitations to parties and events on campus, shrugged and didn’t browse it again for another couple of years or so.
I was, of course, hopelessly behind the times. The Facebook became Facebook, and the whole world and their mother (and mine) joined. Facebook was first a way for people to connect with friends and family, then with people who were in their orbit perhaps, but not in their social circles, and finally, with strangers. This universality and sheer liberal reach of Facebook, and later, other social media outlets such as Twitter, seemed to be the ultimate harbinger of democracy and transparency.
Fast forward then to Wednesday’s American presidential inauguration. President Joe Biden struck a sombre note. “Democracy,” he said, had “prevailed” but it is “fragile.” Biden was referring to the storming of the United States (US) Capitol on January 6, when a group of protesters, egged on by Donald Trump to believe that the election had been fraudulent, attacked the very seat of American democracy. Trump was rightly blamed for his instigating role in the riots but there was another culprit as well — social media. The reputation of Facebook and Twitter lay in tatters. What followed in the aftermath of the insurrection — the suspensions and banning of accounts — did nothing to restore their democratic reputation.
To understand how we got here we need to look to the evolution of social media as a tool by which not just ordinary people but countries began to do business. Twitter and Facebook would connect ordinary citizens yes, but also people to their political leaders, and political leaders to their counterparts.
One of the earliest inklings of the power of social media to change the way international politics is structured came during the Arab Spring. The suicide of a vegetable vendor to protest against the Tunisian government went viral across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, inspiring protests across West Asia and North Africa. Governments fell, and civil wars broke out. Social media played a critical role, spreading democratic ideas across multiple nations, and connecting citizens. It was lauded as “liberation technology” for ushering in an age of transparency and information sharing for the good. Political leaders were swift to capitalise on it.
When Barack Obama taped a message for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, for example, it went viral in Iran. It was shared on over 60,000 blogs, and watched by more than one third of the citizens of Iran. During his second term, when two US Navy patrol boats strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian government detained the American sailors on board, diplomacy between Iran and the US played out on not just through the usual diplomatic back channels but also on Twitter. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry announced the outcome on Twitter, resolving the #sailors episode.
They were, of course, far from the only ones using social media to address contentious bilateral relations. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the step of opening a social media account on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, with a highly symbolic and viral post: “hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends.”
But the opposite also happened. Social media also became a way to trade international barbs. Trump’s pugnacious tweets — often misspelt, and in all caps — called out friends and foes, individuals and countries. More disturbingly, the direct communication of leaders and the presence of millions of followers gave, as recent research has shown, democratic voice not only to those who were excluded from political spaces but also to those who would use it, paradoxically, for illiberal goals. In Trump’s case it meant bringing together a far-Right network of people from across the world who congregated in the dubious corners and chat rooms of social media to trade conspiracy theories.
Thus, “defending democracy” as Biden just vowed to do, is not so simple. On one hand, social media, by its inherent ability to democratise politics, created an insurrection that could have decapitated one of the branches of American government. On the other, the clampdown on social media that followed to control the violence, even though successful, was also deeply troubling. The banning of Trump and others from Twitter and Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler made clear that the power to silence voices, whether of the one or of millions, lies with just three men on the planet – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No wonder defending democracy will be a huge and unenviable task for President Biden’s team.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is associate professor of international relations, Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a research associate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford The views expressed are personal