On April 19th, 2020, rioters took the streets of state capitals to protest against the state closures due to the novel virus SARS-CoV-2. The infectious disease has caused a nationwide lockdown for almost a month now, and on April 19th people wanted to share that they were getting tired of it. Two days later, an article by the Huffington Post titled “Donald Trump Jr. Erupts As Facebook Cuts Dangerous COVID-19 Protest Posts” came out.
Only a few days before, United States President Donald Trump announced his plan to reopen states and their economies; ultimately leaving it up to the Governors, he made no such inclination that he was to force anything until he changed his mind a few days later. He famously took it to twitter to encourage people to tell their state government to open again as the economy was in dire need of it by going as far as stating “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It’s under siege!” as well as other states. It took no time for people to take action and plan a rebuttal through social media. President Trump has even become a questionable source of information amidst all this chaos. A recent study by NPR where they asked people if they trusted information given about Coronavirus from President Trump, only 37% said they did, while the other 63% did not. Things such as these are what reduce his legitimacy even further and cause a lack of trust in the democratic system.
Facebook has a history of getting involved politically when not wanted. One of their most high-profile scandals involved Cambridge Analytica harvesting personal data from millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and using it for political advertising. After such a scandal, many questions arose about the extent to which social media platforms specifically, and the internet in general, plays a role in politics. This feels particularly pertinent during the current time of crisis because, with tensions running so high, Facebook has many opportunities to misstep.
Nathaniel Persily brings out this issue in his article “The Internet’s Challenge to Democracy“. He states “…the internet is a medium that can be used for good or ill. It still can give voice to the voiceless, serve as an indispensable tool for political organizing and community building, and provide a powerful, near-costless outlet for protest, fundraising, and campaigning against entrenched incumbents.” For a platform that is supposed to give a voice to the people, it is doing everything but.
Today the questions arise again, and Facebook is heavily criticized once more for playing an invasive role in Politics. Trying to help the country by preventing the spread of such a deadly virus, Facebook has removed posts and some event pages promoting protests against COVID-19 safety measures. The whole issue in itself seems to be a violation of people’s rights given that posting whatever is a form of free speech, and removing controversial posts is a form of censorship. Additionally, when in the company’s mission statement does it state that the platform will be involved in controlling its consumer’s content? The behavior seems at odds with the main functions of the site. To this day there are still very blurred guidelines as to how much involvement is too much for a social media company.
At what point do governments as well as other mediums constrain the contestation of their government. According to Dahl’s perfect polyarchy, it contains high levels of contestation which is exactly what is occurring now but is being prevented from occurring. Contestation is a rebuttal from its citizens, it’s voicing their opinions on the matter so as to have their voices heard. If their voices are being censored then there is no way of identifying their preferences in order to create a government in their favor. Technology is supposed to serve as a way to include everyone and provide an equal chance to participate.
It is exactly this way that democracies die. As Levitsky and Ziplatt stated in their book “How Democracies Die”, the point of a democracy is every citizen gets a say in what’s happening in the government, so if institutions are preventing some citizens from getting a say, then the democracy becomes ineffective and biased. Even if the government itself had no direct association with this censorship, the fact there is a disagreement in which the head of the government is also involved demonstrated its instability.
The President’s son took no delay in reacting by calling out the platform and declaring it a violation of the first amendment, while other senators or representatives praised the company’s action for taking a stand against harmful misinformation. This split response will no doubt lead to a slow move or effective resolution of the problem. Either way, the root of this comes down to a populist leader frazzled to solve an issue bigger than himself.
Based on his populist ways he aims to encourage violence, manipulate what people think in order to get what he wants. Democracy is falling apart and it’s being documented by users of corrupt social media platforms.
*Photo by Randy Colas, (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license
Dear Sara, first of all, I really enjoyed reading your post, and I agree with you on several fronts. Even though social media can host good and bad at the same time, the increase in the impact of bad will not be preventable, I guess. Unfortunately, social platforms will continue to be a tool of populist leaders where they can manipulate citizens and alter public attention. However, as you very well stated at the end, hopefully, with the help of the social media platforms, we will be able to detect these attempts and increase awareness.
Hey Sara, Nice article. You articulated a lot of what I was thinking these past couple weeks. Given the situation we are in globally, the internet seems to be the one medium everyone is using now to connect with one another, for some, it is their only way to make money. Unfortunately, there are several schemes online trying to profit off the internet by using COVID-19 as their main selling point. Whether that clicks baits on YouTube or selling a “COVID-19 Prevention Vitamin Tablet” on Facebook. It’s becoming very hard for these social media platforms to filter the good information from the bad, so their best way to deal with it all is just to ban any information about COVID-19 unless it comes directly from the CDC or WHO. I think Facebook and many social media platforms are doing their best.
I agree that the lines are blurred when it comes to monitoring social media, but I think it must be monitored because people are not just contesting policies, they are also endangering others. Free speech has its legal limits. For example, statements that incite violence are not protected. While these protests do not incite violence, they do put the public at risk. It is 100% certain that someone will get sick, or even die, after catching the virus from a person who attended these protests. It is also exceedingly likely that these protests will cause a spike in COVID cases in that region. If protests continue, this spike could become large enough to overwhelm the healthcare system. Thus, these protests may not incite violence, but they do present a clear and present danger to society, which was the legal standard justifying limits to free speech. Although this is no longer the legal standard, the law changes. The legal responsibilities of social media companies’ are unclear. I would not be surprised if future laws were created to justify social media sites taking down pages that are likely to endanger someone.