Facebook is weakening democracy | Analysis – analysis
Last month, the debate over social media content policy erupted at dizzying heights. At the center of the controversy is the President of the United States (USA), Donald Trump, who suggested on Twitter that implementing mail voting for the presidential election would manipulate the US election in November. The underlying tensions he faces are clear: Many people who would likely use mail ballots to vote in the presidential election would likely favor Democrats. So he falsely claimed that the emails are “substantially fraudulent.”
Twitter’s response was forceful. The crime was clear: Trump’s tweet was damaging and politically charged misinformation about the vote, which is the most sanctified process in any democracy. For the first time, Twitter flagged a tweet from Trump as potentially misleading, a bold act against a sitting president.
Trump responded to the company. Within days, he issued an executive order seeking to divert content content moderation authority from the industry and put it in 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 questionable policies in the sense that it attempts to impose the override of the old Section 230 of the Communications Decency Law, which grants immunity to Internet companies, including social networks, on content generated by users that appears on the platform.
Refreshingly, Twitter didn’t back down. The next day, the company flagged another Trump tweet for inciting violence, this time in the George Floyd protests. Since then, Trump has increased the stakes, lashing out at Antifa (the anti-fascist movement he blames for the protests) and describing the protesters as anarchists. This is significant since the company has essentially now claimed that it has spread disinformation and incited violence.
If we were to judge Twitter’s actions, we have to say that the company has chosen to favor the democratic interest over everything else. Juxtapose Twitter’s response with the approach Facebook has taken, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggesting you don’t want to be the arbiter of truth. Now it appears that these two companies represent diametrically opposite forces. The employee strikes and viral resignations protesting Facebook’s shrug of the shoulders over Trump’s tweets are illustrative.
As many have argued, Facebook’s notion of protecting freedom of expression is not protective at all. In fact, the policies adopted by Zuckerberg in Georgetown late last year are entirely in the commercial interest of his company. It is very possible that they have nothing to do with protecting users’ freedom of expression. By choosing not to bookmark or remove offensive content, Facebook protects your business. The company may leave offensive material, which is often among the most engaging content. This ensures that you don’t avoid alienating large groups that might view the president’s tweets favorably; and it does not voluntarily activate the slippery slope of content regulation by setting policy limits themselves.
At the heart of these problems is a fundamental tension: what does democracy mean when practiced on digital platforms? Both the Indian and Western democratic systems have always had two fundamentally opposite ideals in institutionalism versus freedom of expression. On the one hand, we have created institutional structures such as the government, the political system, and the radically capitalist economic regime to build an intellectually free and open society. However, over time, institutions can grow to enjoy excess power and germinate dominant economic and social exploitation; We demand individual intellectual independence, through freedom of expression, to push back the undue concentration of power.
In fact, freedom of expression has always been applied to challenge governments and industries. But the trade regime that underlies the likes of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter has turned this internalized system of control and balance within functioning democracies. Before the modern media era, citizens were naturally held accountable for their speech, whether in print, television, or public protest formats. Without the courage to publicly endorse his words, he couldn’t say them. Now, however, a new type of economic logic has emerged that favors algorithmic maximization of the share of consumer media at the expense of everything else. Such effects often favor the virality of extreme content due to its propensity to engage the mind. Therefore, while Zuckerberg and his company maintain an even more difficult line of freedom of expression, we must recognize that the rules of freedom of expression in themselves have been revolutionized by Facebook itself.
Inevitably, Trump’s clash with Twitter will put more pressure on policy makers, particularly members of Congress, to change the way content regulation works. Trump’s actions clarify that we need to set standards on discourse issues so that our democratic norms do not collapse. Light at the end of the tunnel is emerging in the effort to rebuild Section 230. This is a growing sentiment, even with the President and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. As this discussion progresses, Facebook will increasingly see itself as a media entity rather than global agnostic platforms, perhaps just paying off for a company that ranks and sorts online news and users’ social media to determine What do you see.
Viewed from this perspective, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his company, who have been much 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 must do everything possible to protect. This explains several of his recent actions and those of Twitter: the ban on political advertising, statements against the commercialized micro-targeting of communities with political communications, and this group of battles with President Trump included.
We can only hope, in our desire to preserve the structure of democracy to the best of our ability, that the other dominant digital platforms follow suit.
Dipayan Ghosh is co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project, Harvard. I work in Facebook, and he was also an economic advisor at the Obama White House. He is the author of the next book: Terms of Service: How Silicon Valley is destructive by design
The opinions expressed are personal.