Un-Social Media

Was Twitter’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account in the wake of the riots the right decision? This is the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind. 

The Liberal MP for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, said that it was the “right decision on the facts.” I would definitely agree but as he then points out, there is a deeper, unresolved issue of principle behind this all. 

It ought to be deeply unsettling that a private corporation has the ability to muzzle and effectively silence an elected official. Trump supporter or not, anyone with a healthy respect for the way liberal democracies work ought to be concerned at this new situation. 

It is now not far-fetched to imagine a situation where big tech companies, wielding immense power over what is effectively the new public square, pick and choose who they silence, under the cloak of codes of conduct and user agreements, in order to achieve political ends. We must not forget that these are unelected and unaccountable executives making decisions that have a profound impact on the conversations that shape civic life. 

Indeed, to highlight the absurdity of it all, one only needs to look at the incongruous situation of Donald Trump being muted while the Iranian Ayatollah is left to tweet freely. 

The move by Twitter, while the right one on the facts, has at the same time, I suspect, fed into a narrative of Trump as a sort of martyr for the fringe-right. This only further energises his base and fits into their worldview of a fight to the death between them and the political-media-establishment elite. On a practical level, the fringe-right has fled to alternative platforms like Parler and Gab making future suspensions by Facebook or Twitter redundant.  

So, what can be done? I think that a good starting point would be to look at holding social media executives accountable to legislated standards by requiring them to not censor political communication on their platforms, as a general principle.

Exceptions to this rule should be provided and adequately defined by the legislature, in consultation with the industry among others, to ensure that instances of incitement are appropriately dealt with to protect public safety.

The onus should be on social media executives to show that the situation where they purport to suspend someone is indeed within the exceptions as defined by the legislature so as not to give executives free rein. I think that this reform would reflect the importance of free political expression, while sensibly providing for exigencies. 

On the one hand, the articulation of the regulation of what are still private enterprises does somewhat stick in the throat. However, the fact that Facebook and Twitter by their very nature have become the new ‘town-square’ where citizens come together to exchange opinions and gather information warrants taking a different view to them than merely a private corporation that we ought to leave be. Indeed, elections are increasingly won or lost based on what plays out on Facebook and Twitter feeds.

A part of me suspects though that even if the right balance is struck and we are able to hold social media giants accountable with regards to political communication, this is but a temporary remedy that will in the long run fail to slow the palpable and enervating decline of the institutions of Western liberal democracy. 

There is a deeper malaise that is sapping the ability of citizens to come together. This coming together is what gives democracy its vitality.

St Augustine famously wrote in the City of God that a ‘people’ or a ‘commonwealth’ is defined by ‘common agreement on the objects of their love.’[1] However, there are fewer and fewer civic rites or shared norms around which we can live harmoniously with our neighbours.

For example, it seems to me that ever more aspects of life are becoming battlegrounds for identity politics. Douglas Murray in The Madness of Crowds puts it that ‘everyday there is a new subject for hate and moral judgement.’[2] He holds social media responsible. Social media, in many ways thriving off and at the same time fostering the kind of rampant individualism that undercuts civic life, has played a large if not key part in supercharging the atomisation of society.  

Charles Taylor in A Secular Age defines the ‘public sphere’ as the common space where citizens meet to discuss common interests and form a common mind.[3] But it can seriously be questioned whether such a ‘public sphere’ exists anymore in the USA and more broadly across the West. It seems we are no longer capable of reaching a common mind on anything.

While President-elect Joe Biden has tried to raise the eyes of the nation to higher ground by claiming that the riots ‘do not represent who we are’, I’m afraid that he might be wrong. Interminable division, intolerance and a blatant refusal to come together is perhaps who America now really is. 

If the story of the ‘Decline and Fall of Democracy’ is to be told, in Gibbon-style grandeur, have no doubt that many chapters will be devoted to social media’s obliteration of society.

Chanum Torres is the Former President of the Conservative Club

[1] Book XIX, Chapter 26

[2] Page 108

[3] Page 185

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