The banning of Trump and others from Twitter and Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler made clear that the power to silence voices, whether of the one or of millions, lies with just three men on the planet – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No wonder defending democracy will be a huge and unenviable task for President Biden’s team.
I remember the day I was introduced to The Facebook. A Harvard undergraduate whom I had met in a class invited me via email to join this mysterious club. I created my (rudimentary) account, found it populated with only Harvard students, and unable to figure out its purpose beyond invitations to parties and events on campus, shrugged and didn’t browse it again for another couple of years or so.
Fast forward then to Wednesday’s American presidential inauguration. President Joe Biden struck a sombre note. “Democracy,” he said, had “prevailed” but it is “fragile.” Biden was referring to the storming of the United States (US) Capitol on January 6, when a group of protesters, egged on by Donald Trump to believe that the election had been fraudulent, attacked the very seat of American democracy. Trump was rightly blamed for his instigating role in the riots but there was another culprit as well — social media. The reputation of Facebook and Twitter lay in tatters. What followed in the aftermath of the insurrection — the suspensions and banning of accounts — did nothing to restore their democratic reputation.
One of the earliest inklings of the power of social media to change the way international politics is structured came during the Arab Spring. The suicide of a vegetable vendor to protest against the Tunisian government went viral across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, inspiring protests across West Asia and North Africa. Governments fell, and civil wars broke out. Social media played a critical role, spreading democratic ideas across multiple nations, and connecting citizens. It was lauded as “liberation technology” for ushering in an age of transparency and information sharing for the good. Political leaders were swift to capitalize on it.
They were, of course, far from the only ones using social media to address contentious bilateral relations. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the step of opening a social media account on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, with a highly symbolic and viral post: “hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends.”
Thus, “defending democracy” as Biden just vowed to do, is not so simple. On one hand, social media, by its inherent ability to democratise politics, created an insurrection that could have decapitated one of the branches of American government. On the other, the clampdown on social media that followed to control the violence, even though successful, was also deeply troubling. The banning of Trump and others from Twitter and Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler made clear that the power to silence voices, whether of the one or of millions, lies with just three men on the planet – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No wonder defending democracy will be a huge and unenviable task for President Biden’s team.