democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Can Twitter and Facebook censor Trump in the name of democracy?

Although we find the censorship of the still-president of the US sympathetic and fair, we must not forget that social networks are actors with political and economic interests.

Iván Schuliaquer
13 Jan 2021 - 1:41pm
Captura de pantalla de la cuenta de Donald Trump, suspendida.

Twitter and Facebook blocked Donald Trump's posts and suspended his account. There is no doubt that the political career of the still-president of the United States is undemocratic.

However, public institutions, and not corporations, should be the ones ensuring the preservation of democracy. In that sense, as pleasant and fair as it may seem to censor Donald Trump amid an instigation to a coup d'état, it is a dangerous precedent.

It sounds obvious, but it is not superfluous to repeat it: Twitter and Facebook are political actors. There are machines behind the algorithms’ opacity and the publication and segmentation logic, but there are also people with economic and political interests.

The weight of these multinationals became exposed to everyone: that who is, supposedly, the most powerful person on the planet is without a way to express himself, as decided by the platform owners. The multinationals censure the president of the wealthiest country in the world.

To a greater or lesser extent, the traditional mass media are considered actors with their own interests. In Argentina, this has been at the center of public debate for more than a decade. However, none of the traditional media companies imagined, not even in their happiest dreams, to have the power to filter and build part of the world. Not even those with a power similar to that of Google and Facebook, which are among the five most capitalized globally and have unusual representation strength.

In this respect, the most used digital platforms are the same on most of the planet, although politics are still processed nationally. No one chooses who are the owners of these networks, which have become a central space for public debate, relations between people, and providing information. But they are, at the same time, private companies seeking to maximize their economic return.

Therefore, it is essential not to decontextualize the timing and political opportunity chosen to censure Trump. They did so when he was already out. On the same day, the legislative commissions that refer to the regulation of large digital corporations were defined as chaired by Democrats.

This will not be the first or last time in the United States’ history that decisions affecting the world will be made with domestic politics in mind. If Facebook and Twitter will, from now on, be more protective of what is said or reprehensible, that would have consequences for democracy.

On which side would they have stood in November 2019 on Bolivia? Who would they have censored, the overthrown President Evo Morales or the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro? Where would the democratic palate of the owners of Silicon Valley be pointing?

The solution is not to delegate the management of democracy to corporations.

Democratic politics requires contingent consensus, many times translated into institutions, and it lives in an always-worrying fragility, something that becomes more evident when authoritarian sectors govern. The solution is not to delegate the management of democracy to corporations.

Beyond that, Trump wasn't born out of a cabbage. His conversion from a billionaire entrepreneur to a politician occurred -in part- on social networks, thanks to its algorithmic logic and bubbles of meaning where everyone feels like a majority and certain lies can take on the status of truth with less difficulty. American society, rich in supremacist groups and conspiracy theories, was fertile ground for this network logic to allow the replication, massification, and articulation of what circulated in small segmented groups. All this would be unthinkable without Google, Facebook, and Twitter. However, it is also unthinkable without Fox News, a central leg of the American extreme-right narrative. It is worth remembering that Trump's political career began with a fake news story, widely disseminated on Youtube and various social networks, in which the current president assured that Barack Obama was not American and offered to donate five million dollars to charity if he showed documents denying it.

For a long time, the networks are not what some predicted in the mid-2000s: a place of horizontalization of the word, of more democracy, where the possibility of everyone taking the floor would lead to a better society. The optimistic forecasts were broken in the last decade and ended up sinking with the triumphs of politicians like Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. The networks were the scene and the producers of the ultra-right’s emergence: a terrain also intervened by trolls, fake news and much investment to, as Natalia Aruguete and Ernesto Calvo say, raze the debate. Therefore, what we are experiencing is not a right-winging of societies, but an anti-democratic radicalization of the right.

Social networks played a central role in disseminating hate speech, an area in which they should have intervened a long time ago and have done very little so far. Freedom of expression is not an absolute right, especially when it stigmatizes and criminalizes others. But, censoring the president of the United States is something else and involves opening a dangerous door. A door that seems to get lost in algorithms and the opaque immateriality of the digital world, and where some always decide when and where to activate the button.

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