The Crisis Our Democracy Faces Isn’t Just Trump – It’s Also Unfettered Social Media

The Wrap


For a minute there, I thought the worst was behind us. Let’s take a tally of what happened to our democracy last week: Control of the Senate flipped from the venal grip of Mitch McConnell to the Democrats; a violent mob failed in their attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win; Donald Trump was exposed as having incited the insurrection at the Capitol; he was banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and calls came for his resignation, impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment because of it.

On the whole, you could say it was a turbulent and scary week, but our democracy came through it.

But this isn’t the end of the road. Because what became crushingly clear last week is that our democracy is vulnerable not only because of a seditious commander-in-chief, but because of the tools of 21st-century communication.

Our social media platforms hold an outsize power over whether our democracy stands or falls. The ability to amass a following, to communicate to followers directly with no regulation or mediation by our government, is not a leak in our boat but a gaping hole.

We knew before last week that the scale and power of online communication represented a risk, but we now know that we must do something about it urgently. We simply cannot depend on the ethical choices of a couple of billionaires, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who more or less control these platforms and determine their rules, to keep us safe.

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Running such massively powerful platforms requires constant judgment calls; but the companies have proven to be unreliable stewards. Last week, Twitter and Facebook both finally concluded that Trump was using his accounts to incite violence, and banned him — Twitter permanently and Facebook at least through the end of his presidency. But as many have pointed out, they did so only after an open act of insurrection erupted in our Capitol, which narrowly avoided unimagined disaster. And they did so at the very end of the Trump administration, when he will no longer have the power to exact retribution.

This highlights the idiosyncratic nature of the problem rather than a reassurance that all turned out OK.

And let’s talk about the First Amendment. I’m all for it. I will always advocate that as a free society we err on the side of “more speech.” But take a beat here.

Conservatives have been squawking all weekend on their various feeds that they are being censored, that their First Amendment rights are being violated. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about this, but it’s a silly argument since his feed hasn’t been shut down. And Sarah Huckabee Sanders cried “censorship” over the fact that she lost tens of thousands of followers in the last week.

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I’ve lost 50k+ followers this week. The radical left and their big tech allies cannot marginalize, censor, or silence the American people. This is not China, this is United States of America, and we are a free country.

— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) January 9, 2021

The Trump ban does not violate any First Amendment rules, since no one has a constitutionally protected right to say anything anywhere at anytime. Nor do you have a public right to an account on a private social media platform. And your favorite restaurant can refuse to serve you if you don’t wear shirts and shoes.

But none of us should feel comfortable about the ability of one platform to turn on or off access to someone’s followers and readers. Indeed, for years many flagged Trump’s account for perceived violations of Twitter’s terms of service. The argument came back that he was president and therefore more tolerance was required for head of state who made news even when he was offending sensibilities. It’s hard to argue that terms of service mean anything if they are selectively applied.

It’s clear that these private companies cannot be trusted to come up with meaningful moderation standards — and apply them fairly. The government or some independent public authority should set industry-wide standards for content moderation and enforcement, much like the Federal Communications Commission does for the broadcast networks that reach every American household.

Arnold Schwarzenegger — a cool actor but never my favorite politician — released a heartfelt and important video on Sunday, drawing upon his own childhood in Austria, where the sins of World War II reverberated through the social fabric in alcoholism, domestic violence and emotional pain. It began, as he points out, with Nazi lies, lies and more lies.

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The lies reverberate. I sat in a neighborhood park today to enjoy the sunshine and overheard two men on a bench who had been sitting and talking intensely for a while. They were Baby Boomer age, with grey hair, and one wore a “NAVY” T-shirt. I kept hearing “fraud” come wafting across the warm winter breeze. After a while, it became clear they were talking about the election. Still. And one said that the judges (all 60-plus of them, I guess) refused to look at the evidence of electoral fraud.

These ideas will persist. Perpetuating them on social media encourages them to do so.

I remember meeting Zuckerberg over a year ago at a black-tie dinner to celebrate scientists in Silicon Valley. At the time, Facebook was already facing severe criticism for its failure to control hate speech, quash conspiracies and rein in President Trump’s insults, lies and threats.

Introducing myself, I urged Zuckerberg to take steps to make Facebook more accountable for the content on its platform. He listened. I pleaded: “You hold our democracy in the palm of your hand,” I said.

He responded: “That seems a little overstated.”

I said: “I’d rather overstate it than understate it.”

But now it doesn’t seem so overstated, does it?  If we don’t change the terms of the game, this can and will happen again.

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