The Case of Hunter Biden’s Laptop
Elon Musk recently bought Twitter, a social media platform that has over 200 million users worldwide. After his purchase Musk announced a couple of new measures such as “relaxing content restrictions, combating fake and automated accounts, and shifting away from an advertising-based revenue model” as the Guardian article mentions. However, the ‘relaxation’ of the content restrictions or the combat against fake news is not well-defined which raises questions such as ‘what is fake news?’ or ‘what kind of tweets are hate speech that aims for democracy?’. Those are important questions to raise because especially since 2016, far-right politicians and parties are resorting to Twitter in order to amplify their anti-establishment criticism against certain political actors, journalists, and sometimes the state they are running in (Jacobs, K., Sandberg, L., & Spierings, N., p.613). As a recent example, chronic populism crises in the US gained momentum with the re-emergence of Hunter Biden’s laptop controversy. The allegations rely on the idea that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, contacted top-level Ukrainian business elite and statesmen during the last term of the Obama administration and provided a bridge of personal contacts and benefits between them and Joe Biden. And for this operation, Hunter Biden received material and political benefits from the Ukrainian elites. According to Trump the evidence for this corrupt relationship was conducted online and the pieces of evidence are in Hunter Biden’s laptop which is missing materially but the information is revolving around social media after the laptop was stolen/gone missing. However, this case is not just an ordinary corruption allegation because of the involvement of Elon Musk. The ‘Twitter Leaks’ by Elon Musk revealed that the previous Twitter administration covered the story up and did not allow information to circulate within the Twitter platforms either official (i.e: the Washington Post Twitter account was blocked) or personal accounts. Along with that, Democratically inclined mass media channels like CNN’s attitude to not cover and blame the Trump (and Republicans) administration over the case gave this crisis another dimension as Fox News interpreted the case. This created a debate over free speech again in US politics but when looking from a macro scale Elon Musk’s free-speech crusade is not helping. Because rather than being intolerant to populist discourse on this issue Musk is providing an area for populist political figures or in Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik’s terms he is turning Twitter into a ‘tribune of fascists and racists’. However, this conclusion alone might be problematic because as Mudde and Kaltwasser argue, populism also increases political participation; it also raises questions about how healthy democracy is in terms of representation of the masses (p.82-83). From that dichotomy, it is possible to understand whether social media (Twitter) is a populist discourse tool rather than a free speech platform that undermines American democracy or whether it is providing an area for free speech for the political spectrum within the US.
Twitter, Elon Musk, and Populism
The notion of democracy is a long-term philosophical and political scientific debate that started in the 20th century and has been ongoing since then. And as Schmitter argued there is no singular form of democracy because the context and conditions in all varieties are constantly changing factors for all countries and time periods (p.76). An ideal democracy however can be identified as a participatory regime that allows individuals who become citizens to elect their representatives and hold them accountable for their actions both via the institutions and with the elections (Schmitter, p.76). Robert Dahl expanded this narrow definition by arguing that along with vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms, democracies should also have a set of non-derogative liberties that entrenches the citizen’s preferences and mediums of those preferences to be expressed in a free manner under the definition of ‘polyarchy’ (Dahl, p.2). However, those understandings seem a little bit behind when looking at today’s democracies and the rise of populism. For example, Schmitter takes the actors of democracy and emphasizes highly the roles and responsibilities of the political entrepreneurs and institutions while considering the citizens as a crucial yet non-active element of the system in terms of penetration besides electoral participation (p.77). Similarly, when Robert Dahl points out the rights and liberties of citizens in his polyarchy definition his intention is merely to protect the individual and political presence of the citizens against the state authority which is the main source of power. This means that within those debates digitalization of politics, the entrance of new or non-political actors, and the extremely polarized participation of citizens were not included or foreseen. On the issue of digitalization and democracy, some scholars like Jack M. Balkin in the mid-2000s underlined how some liberties would be much more unrestricted for citizens (i.e: free speech) to conduct while making the citizens themselves a commodity for the markets (p.441). In his article, he also predicts how governments (in the US judiciary and other institutions ) would lag behind in regulating the services such as Facebook, etc. so that they would eventually lead to government censorship which is the oldest form of regulation on freedom of speech (Jack M. Balkin, p.432). And it became apparent with the recent debates on how the political clash and arguments have been constructed from this axis. But even those predictions do not address the dynamics of today for several reasons.
The issue here lies in the mixture of all issues mentioned above. Because, unlike the previous periods where democracy was the regime of elites who are conducting the do-process, social media allows and necessitates the political actors to publicize themselves. On this Mattias Ekman and Andreas Widholm use the term ‘celebrification of politics’ in order to underline how politics itself has become a performative act and they are examining the issue under 3 subtopics (p.520). The element of ‘public connectivity’ refers to the new direct connection between politicians and the masses where politicians can build up their ‘ordinary’ images in front of the masses while fulfilling their political agenda by inserting their messages (Mattias Ekman and Andreas Widholm, p.521). This also coincides with the definition of populism because as Mudde and Kaltwasser argued populist leaders are presenting themselves as ‘the real people’ (p.82). On this Brian L. Ott gives the example of Donald Trump (and his Twitter campaign) who presented himself as an ‘ordinary American’ with his simple language while ‘feeding’ people with his ideas about many conflicted policy or social areas (p.64). In more severe cases like Turkey Nükhet Sandal uses the term ‘replacement’ as a populist strategy which means that populist leaders (or parties) are developing a different set of norms and ideals in accordance with the domestic demand or international trends when challenging the existing status quo (p.253). On the issue of populism, this means agenda-setting in which extreme topics or acts are inserted into the political market which makes the previous democratic options less relevant or favorable. For the US case specifically, Trump’s political history is a canonical example because the recent NYT (from 2020) article promoted the far-right Tea Party legitimized and attached itself to Trump’s campaign which is via Twitter interaction. So it became part of Trumpism and it is constructing its argument under the ‘third way in American politics’. The second point Ekman and Widholm underlines is the ‘media connectivity’ which refers to the creation of an alternative reality by the politicians for an ongoing situation in favor of them which would eventually lead to electoral or social success; the third point is ‘celebrity connectivity’ which mean the ability to connect with politically or socially important figures to increase the legitimacy of self or the message (p. 521). Especially for Hunter Biden’s case, I find it useful to expand the last 2 strategies to non-political actors like Elon Musk as well who is using his Twitter account to ‘leak details’ of how the ‘reality’ was distorted in 2020. For Musk leaks were an adaptation of his free speech vision on Twitter but also a representation of how American civil society evolved. This incident shows that American politics is corrupted to some extent but in the long term, Musk’s free speech understanding is damaging American politics because it is paving the way for major or minor populist actors to criticize the democratic system at its core. Because considering Twitter as a new institution that challenges the monopoly of the state on information after Musk’s purchase it is not seeking to be a complementary institution for the American democracy which would empower civil society and accountability of the political actors but rather a platform of chaos. On this Balkin published a new article that underlines the necessity of private actor democratic entrepreneurship and if possible intermediary institutions for the social media platforms that would protect and flourish the notions of democracy not undermining its core values (p.6). This is also in accordance with Mudde and Kaltwasser’s arguments on how populist seeks institutions as a threat against the ‘general will of the people, which in this case is the right of free speech and information gathering (p.91). Interestingly the duo also underlines the ‘software’ that populist leaders are operating in and how it reflects their populist ruling (Mudde and Kaltwasser, p.94). In other words, Twitter as a newly emerging political software/private sphere is now an alternative new playing ground for populist politics because it provides them all abilities to bypass authorities while empowering their anti-establishment discourse. On this, I find the study by Jacobs, Sandberg, and Spierings who were mainly focusing on populist reflexes on oppositional journalists quite helpful. Because by changing the actors their claim on how social media has been instrumentalized for further populism while increasing the public/social cost of democratic opposition can be applied to Musk’s mocking yet ‘popular’ tweets (p.615). Those tweets were/are aimed/aiming the Biden administration, senators, or journalists (the status quo American democracy actors in general) and they can be labeled as ‘naming and shaming’ operations which are de-legitimizing those actors in the eyes of the public. And when considering the target audience picture becomes much clearer because as de Mello, Cheung and Inzlicht pointed out there is a direct correlation between Twitter use and “decreased well-being, increased polarization, increased sense of belonging, increased outrage, and increased boredom.” (p.37). This means that the people who are ‘feeding others or got fed’ by populist tweets are already disgruntled people which is important because as Mudde and Kaltwasser argued populists ferment the anti-establishment discourse from here (p.95). In other words, people who are using Twitter for political or social grievances are getting polarized more over time. And this trend as Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü pointed out makes democratic party politics less legitimate but more importantly cancels the civil society as a balancing mechanism for further polarization and democratic decline (p.446). So it is natural to assume that the people who are already skeptical about democracy in the US became more polarized or infected with populism as they were exposed more to populist rhetoric over Hunter Biden’s case as well because this case debunks all democratic actors either conventional (i.e: CNN) or unconventional (ex-Twitter board/CEO) against populist ones. However, it is also possible to say that because the case became public there is a positive side of populism that can be also examined here which is higher accountability. For Mudde and Kaltwasser populists can open up some issues or policy areas by demanding more accountability, especially when they are in opposition, that a segment of society that feels alienated such as this case which would most probably be covered up due to the political interests of Biden and his political entourage or with international-related motivations (p.84). So by considering their point it is possible to argue that populist actors/parties might be useful in terms of putting pressure on areas such as transparency and favor of democracy rather than individuals. However it is important to mention that for Hunter Biden situation is a bit intertwined because allegations were made during the Trump administration; however, the case appeared in the public sphere again when Republicans became the oppositional group and Twitter (along with Musk) tended to allow populist discourse to revolve around much easier. Lastly, on Elon Musk it would be totalistic to call a politician a populist. Because his own expressions on Twitter (if considered true) are showing that his political interests are still within the dominant 2-party system while his preferences change so it would be an overgeneralization to identify him as a populist. Also as Gerald F. Davis argues there is a populist discourse dominant around all Silicon Valley actors so rather than focusing on Musk’s approach as a unique one it would be better to focus on populism and growing technology companies (p.6).
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- Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. (1991). “What Democracy Is… and Is Not,” Journal of Democracy 2 (3): 75-88.
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- Malik, N. (2022, November 28). Elon Musk’s Twitter is fast proving that free speech at all costs is a dangerous fantasy. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/28/elon-musk-twitter-free-speech-donald-trump-kanye-west
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