Democracy Dies on the Net

The Net

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

Democracy Dies on the Net

The news that Twitter reinstated former President Trump’s account over the weekend sent shockwaves across the country and around the world. The suspension was motivated by the risk of the former president’s insistence on rejecting the results of the 2020 Presidential Election would bring more violence. There were concerns over the insurrection and the microblogging site’s role, which the January 6th Committee addressed during one of their hearings. The committee viewed a tweet from the former president as an invitation to the insurrection, drawing into the use of the platform in the event.

The permanent suspension received mixed reactions in the aftermath of the insurrection. Some condemned the decision. They argued the principles of the First Amendment should extend to social media platforms. At the same time, those supporting the sanction insisted not only on the responsibility the former president held for the incitement but, moreover, on the continued threat of his refusal to acknowledge the loss represented for democratic institutions. The debate over freedom of expression is not new within social media. Still, after a violent insurrection against American democracy, it took a different turn. It showed the power these platforms have when they are weaponized.

Freedom of Speech and Post-Truth

After the notion of an alternative reality took the front seat during the Trump administration, we witnessed how the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic became an additional source of division and evidence of the profound gap between those believing in facts and those rejecting them. The confrontation of these two viewpoints had little to do with freedom of expression and more with critical thinking. The antagonisms became more salient once the vaccines became available. The profound distrust of science and the need for collective immunization became another source of a divide in an already highly polarized society.

Many have explored social media’s influence on society, but its impact on the Covid-19 response has raised many concerns. Moreover, it has been documented that one of its major driving forces has been the former president. Yet, freedom of speech advocates have vehemently rejected punishing him and his followers for spreading falsehoods across social media platforms. After the 2016 Presidential election, there was evidence of the spread of misinformation among Trump followers. The major players in the social media ecosystem were seen as unprepared, if not complicit, with bad actors -domestic and foreign- that took advantage of these platforms’ weaknesses (if not greed).

The 2020 Stress Test

This time, the leading social media platforms acted, considering the previous experience in 2016 and the incoming threats facing the 2020 Election. The former president’s warning that he would not concede the election prompted preemptive measures to defuse the materialization of such a threat.

Unfortunately, both Facebook and Twitter once more played a significant role leading up to the insurrection. The violence unleashed on the Capitol resulted from the concerted effort of numerous violent groups, armed militias and hate groups, that used these platforms to organize under their permissive watch. The consequences have added to the distrust of social media, with increasing demands of fact-checking and oversight.

The Threat is Not Over

The results of the 2020 and 2022 elections momentarily brought a sense of relief, although the threats against democracy in the United States persist. Still, with few yet to concede, the slate of election deniers lost most of their races. These candidates have and continue to use social media platforms to spread lies about the election and, in some cases, the same electoral process that members of their party won.

This situation only adds to the concern about the role Twitter could have in the fight against misinformation after the reinstatement of the former president’s account. It is not only the toxic environment that has spread across the platform with its new owner’s supposed First Amendment advocacy. It is the abuse of it as an excuse to promote anti-Semitism and homo/transphobia during a time of increasing violence against these groups.

The Death of Democracy

The attack on Paul Pelosi, the threats against the recent Jewish community in New York, and the shooting in a Colorado LGBTQ club all have in common being a frequent target of hate groups online. The hate-mongering against Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her a constant object of violent aggression, not only on social media. The Jewish community in the United States has seen a 61% increase in violence against the group. The LGBTQ community is also facing rising threats, both legal and social.

The lack of guardrails on social media platforms has made violence against these groups pass as freedom of speech. Discarding content monitoring has allowed a behavior forcing vulnerable communities to leave these platforms for safer places. When people use freedom of speech as a cover for bigotry, racism, and other hateful conduct, the principles of democracy fade away. The balance in exercising individual freedoms needs to be as comprehensive as possible.

If social media platforms become a haven for violent groups committed to silencing other voices, they will end up in echo chambers of bigotry and hate. As private companies, they do have an obligation to their owners/investors but also to society. As public squares, they cannot become an instrument to use against those they disagree with or oppose. Freedom of expression is a human right and no one -regardless of political power or wealth- has its monopoly.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

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