New Hierarchies of Power
Curbing influence of tech giants is an opportunity for Transatlantic cooperation.
by Miroslava Sawiris, GLOBSEC
Many voices rejoiced when the former US President’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts were suspended. However, social media were not the first platforms to censor Trump’s remarks. As early as March 2020 some US TV stations cut short Trump’s speech in which he peddled Covid-19 disinformation, while on 5th of November 2020, shortly after Trump lost the presidential election, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, CNBC, and NBC decided to stop airing his speech stating peddling of lies as a reason.
Clear sign that Trump’s power to dictate narratives both on TV and digital platforms was waning occurred when even the long-standing promoter of Trump’s administration, Fox News, decided to fact-check his speech.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater
Nonetheless, it is one thing to decide not to air parts of speech or to fact-check it, and it is an altogether different thing to effectively ban somebody, in this case the US president, from social media. Similar sentiment was expressed by EC’s Vice President Věra Jourová: “The fact that they [Big Tech firms] can silence a sitting U.S. president based on unclear criteria and without oversight can be dangerous for free speech.”
Yes, Donald Trump’s role in Capitol Hill Riots which cost five lives after systematically lying to his followers about the alleged election fraud is undeniable. However, suspending Donald Trump’s accounts due to ‘the risk of further incitement of violence’ rings hollow as long as other even more problematic political figures continue to flourish on Facebook and Twitter. While banning harmful political speech from digital platforms may seem like a quick fix, its arbitrariness and lack of transparency set a dangerous precedent.
Who makes the decisions?
Most importantly, banning sitting US president from major digital platforms demonstrates their absolute power to decide what speech is acceptable, and these decisions are not necessarily based on principles of impartiality and fairness, since these are first and foremost, private companies.
Politics is a messy process of negotiating division of power and resources among differing groups of interests. However, a simple question: who decides? helps us quickly identify the locus of power in politics: in this case, tech giants and their executives who wield the power to not only steer the content of our conversations, but also to decide who gets to speak in the first place. In this sense, digital revolution is re-defining hierarchies of power and tech giant executives are now more powerful than the most powerful elected official in the world – a situation which has significant consequences for the concept of state sovereignty.
In any democratic state, whether it be parliamentary or presidential system, separation of powers is essential to ensure the tricky balance needed to avoid its concentration. The system has been designed long before our forefathers could have imagined digital revolution with its complexities, at once empowering people to have a voice while at the same time creating the cheapest and most efficient propaganda machine in human history.
Because of this unprecedented technological and societal developments, the dilemma around free speech and power of private companies to restrain it will not be resolved by relying on solutions implemented in the past. These paradigmatic changes will require utterly innovative approaches. In what many believe to be self-preservatory PR move on behalf of digital platforms, Trump’s banishment from major social media has actually demonstrated the scope of the problem and thus, opened up the opportunity to address it.
The time is right on both sides of the Atlantic
Intense discussion of digital environment’s regulation has been at the forefront of European interests for several years now, and it is slowly coming to fruition through initiatives such as the recently presented Digital Services Act (DSA) and European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP).
Both of these strive to address issues around dysfunctional digital space in various ways. DSA will represent the backbone of addressing issues around illegal content such as hate speech while also aiming to introduce ‘co-regulatory backstop’, a first step in moving away from the current self-regulatory model of digital platforms’ operation, in which these corporations exist largely outside of any legal frameworks.
EDAP approaches information security as an important part of any functional democracy, and in that respect aims to foster it through activities strengthening electoral integrity, media support and fight against disinformation.
It remains to be seen whether these initiatives will be strong enough to prevent already ongoing fragmentation of the Single market as some EU member states have already implemented their own legal solutions (German Netz DG law), and as other states, notably Poland and Hungary, call for even stronger digital sphere regulation based on alleged moderation bias against right-wing content.
Worrying developments regarding democratic governance in both Hungary and Poland add yet another layer of complexity to digital space regulation. On one hand, unregulated digital space leads to social polarization, radicalization, deadly infodemic and unbridled power concentration in the hands of tech giants, on the other critics are concerned that underperforming democracies can use social media regulation to suppress dissenting voices.
In the US, the discussion about social media regulation has often boiled down to the monopolistic position of tech giants on the US market with a series of antitrust lawsuits which could potentially lead to their break-up. Several highly publicized hearings with representatives of digital platforms were held in the Congress, but so far, they have not led to much progress. However, it is expected that after Capitol Hill Riots and with the Biden administration in power, the appetite for addressing lawless digital space will be much higher on the agenda, and this issue can also garner bi-partisan support.
Finding solutions that will satisfy all stakeholders will be incredibly tricky, but the timing is right. While European approach may differ from the discussions going on in Washington, Biden administration’s need to evaluate and address the damages caused by Trumpism and the underlying digital structures which enabled it in the first place represent an opportunity for renewed Transatlantic cooperation.
Miroslava Sawiris, M.A., Research Fellow, GLOBSEC
Within the Democracy & Resilience Programme she analyses malign efforts to undermine democratic societies, as well as strategies, tools and actors involved in influence operations. She led research projects analysing impact of disinformation campaigns on electoral processes in Europe. Among her further interests are strategic communication and digital platforms’ regulation.
She is a review board member of the konspiratori.sk project advocating for more transparent information environment by defunding disinformation sites.
She hold BA degree in Arabic and Russian Civilisation from the University of Leeds and an MA degree in International Relations from the University of York
The views and opinions expressed on our blog are those of the authors, representing a wide range of viewpoints, and do not necessarily reflect the position of VSquare or our affiliated organisations.
This is a second post in our discussion on the future of the Internet, freedom of expression and regulations of social media platforms. Read also: Centralisation is a danger to democracy by Michał “rysiek” Woźniak.