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