In today’s world of misinformation, disinformation, “fake news” and foreign influence, it can be hard to imagine there was once a time when social media was viewed as the ultimate platform through which Western democracy would wash upon the world. As autocracies across the Middle East fell, the press lavished praise upon the social media tools like Twitter they credited with toppling brutal dictators. Somehow in the years since, social media has gone from being the great savoir of democracy to its ultimate suppressor, deciding who has a voice in democratic societies and what they are permitted to say, even to their elected officials. Can democracy survive social media?
The Arab Spring of a decade ago was supposed to be the great awakening of the power of social media to empower the people of the world to embrace Western democracy. The thinking in both Washington and Silicon Valley was that all across the world, every person on earth longed for the capitalist freedoms of America and would rush into the arms of American democracy if only, somehow, they had the tools to overthrow their existing governments and turn them into something that looked more like the US.
Social media emerged as a tailor-made answer to this call: a simple non-technical publishing platform that offered both private and public web hosting and international communication free of charge. Suddenly all those democracy activists across the world could unite in overthrowing their existing governments and replacing them with capitalist democratic American clones.
In reality, social media played a far lesser role in these revolutions than it is credited with, its impact primarily limited to the initial stage of overcoming information asymmetry and offering an alternative communications path at a time when governments had yet to recognize social media as a threat.
In the decade since, governments have turned social media into the ultimate surveillance machine, tracking protesters and even using American tech companies as surveillance state contractors, ordering lists of their citizens engaging in any manner of behavior legal in the US but illegal in their own country, such as criticizing their government or simply being LGBTQ
Most corrosively to democracy, however, has been the platforms’ rush to address the growing awareness of the spread of false information, toxic speech and foreign influence through censorship rather than science.
Rather than invest in mapping the flow of false information and foreign influence through society and the role of their platforms in that spread or trying to understand the conditions under which such falsehoods impact society, social companies have focused on banning users and censoring content.
Twitter now decides who speaks to the President of the United States and what they are allowed to say to him or any of the other elected officials that represent them.
Facebook actually intervenes in democratic elections to interfere with the speech of a political party and its supporters and outright bansdemocratically elected parties in Europe, including those serving in the European Parliament.
Black box machine learning algorithms increasingly expand the role of algorithms from merely controlling what we see to actually determining what we say as well.
Unaccountable computer code silently flags posts as violations of sites’ opaque “acceptable speech” guidelines, with users having no right of appeal. The accuracy of these algorithms and their implicit biases are entirely unknown, with the companies steadfastly refusing to release even the most basic accuracy statistics or open them to external auditing.
Twitter’s response to the question of its role in democracy? To point to its anti-“fake news” efforts and deny “shadow banning” while declining to answer any of the questions posed it about how it sees its role in mediating the communication of citizens with their democratically elected officials and the impact of its bans and opaque censorship on that connection.
Facebook’s response to the question of its role in democracy? That “they’re definitely important questions” but that the company has no comment.
Putting this all together, it is remarkable that the very companies that have so vocally touted their role in democracy and spend enormous effort convincing policymakers and the public that social platforms now form the most critical communicative conduits powering democracy, are so reticent to talk about the actual impact of that role on the free flow of information that is the very basis of democracy itself.
For Twitter and Facebook both to remain silent on the question of how they view their roles in democracy and especially how they believe their policies and actions enhance rather than endanger democracy is almost unconscionable.
If two of the most powerful private corporations that increasingly control the flow of information in democracies are able to simply refuse to talk about those roles and refuse to provide even the most basic details about what safeguards, if any, they are willing to offer the free flow of information that threatens their business models, what hope do we have for democracy?
In the end, perhaps instead of the savior of democracy social platforms were once seen as, perhaps they will be its ultimate suppressor.