Hope has come to US politics. For those who are eager for a new way of doing politics, it was heartening to see Kamala Harris sworn in – after all, it was women leaders worldwide who responded most successfully to the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions. Under one of the decrees signed by President Biden on his first day in office, the United States rejoined the World Health Organization. The varied list of “bold actions” taken on day one ran the gamut from halting construction of the border wall to imposing a 100-day mask and physical-distancing mandate on federal property. Other decrees related to international and humanitarian policies, such as the return to the Paris Climate Agreement and the defense of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has protected so-called Dreamers from deportation. Sadly, Biden and Harris’s bold list leaves no clue about whether or not they will take steps to regulate the spreading of lies and disinformation on social media.
Big tech attunes its ethics to profit and not necessarily to democratic values or the common good
It is not our intention to reinforce the chorus of criticism during these days of hope. We saw a display of courage on day one, along with pledges to soon undo other outrages committed by former president Trump, including the atrocious Global Gag Rule, an imperialist policy that violates the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls in the Global South. However, people living on the southern side of the US empire now face Trump’s legacy, foreshadowed in his farewell address by his reference to a movement that “is only just beginning.” We know what movement he is talking about. The recent attack of the Capitol showed us how far his boldness and virulence can go, unleashing a contagion of hatred and resentment among males, while exalting the values of whiteness, Evangelical fanaticism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, militarism, and xenophobia.
While US politics may hold out hope that a return to reasonable governance will control the Trump movement, the same cannot be said about Latin American countries, where his bedfellows enjoy entrenched power. There is no better example than Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a leader who has followed in Trump’s footsteps, sowing hatred and using social media to spread disinformation, in this case, seasoned with the flavors of the Global South, like military authoritarianism and strongman politics. The movement mustered by Trump needs social media to survive and thrive. But the rest of the world has been relegated to the backyard, while we wait for Biden-Harris to courageously regulate social media rather than merely applaud the tech giants when they take it upon themselves to define the “public interest” and restrict the publication and circulation of disinformation posted by political leaders.
Trump was banned from Twitter after the January 6 insurrection, a gag order that followed a 12-hour temporary suspension for inciting the mob. Similar actions were taken by other platforms, like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitch, and more than 70,000 Twitter accounts that were spreading the QAnon conspiracy theory vanished, along with Trump. The public began debating who should decide what is acceptable or not in public digital spaces. The liberal values of freedom of expression made themselves felt on both sides of the controversy as major players on the international stage, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, voiced reservations about private enterprise’s power to regulate political participation. Merkel did not question Trump’s inappropriate content or the extent to which social media is responsible for inflaming political hatred. Instead, she questioned who should have the power to regulate political speech in a democracy: “The fundamental right [of freedom of expression] can be interfered with, but along the lines of the law and within the framework defined by the lawmakers. Not according to the decision of the management of social media platforms.”
Democratic leaders worldwide need to work together to define fair means for regulating hatred on social media
Data on the international regulation of social media are sparse. A 2019 survey showed that just over 40 countries had taken some action to address misinformation, through the creation of task forces or digital and media literacy campaigns and projects. The European Union has opted for consensus building and voluntary enforcement of codes of conduct and policies to counter online disinformation. Unfortunately, self-regulation by the very companies who profit from the circulation of this information does not seem to be enough. And even when hateful leaders incite disorder, social media platforms are selective about enforcing codes of conduct. Countries like Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Brazil have seen episodes much like Trump’s recent incitement of violence, and yet silence has never been imposed in those places to protect “public interest.” Activists argue that it is the power of any given market that determines when and if platforms apply their civilizing rules; in other words, big tech attunes its ethics to profit and not necessarily to democratic values or the common good.
In his inaugural address, President Biden said “democracy is fragile.” As Latinas, we know this fragility can pave the way for long-lasting authoritarian regimes, because democracy doesn’t always prevail where we come from. We are the morrow of the Trumpian movement now raging across social media in the middle of a pandemic. Among its acts of courage, the Biden-Harris administration needs to acknowledge that capitalism never regulates itself, particularly when it is a matter of shaping transparent, democratic political space on social platforms. Democratic leaders worldwide need to work together to define fair means for regulating hatred on social media and preventing public space on these platforms from undermining the fragile democracies of the Global South.
Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University.
Giselle Carino is an Argentinian political scientist and IPPF/WHR director.