This week social media platforms finally took a long awaited, necessary stance against the unchecked power of Donald Trump. From the very beginning of Trump’s candidacy we all bore witness to the chaotic unfolding of his online presence as it quickly evolved into nationwide conspiracies, eventually boiling over into a full on insurrection. The one question I could not stop asking myself the whole time is how we let it get this far. How did we touch every point on the spectrum between mean malicious tweets and blatantly false election claims without anyone putting a stop to it?
Wednesday’s attack on Capitol Hill was, I hope, an unmistakable testimony to the fact that online conversations have real life consequences. It means something to have a platform. There is a lot of power in being able to instantly reach 89 million people (the number of followers Trump had on Twitter before his permanent suspension this week). Trump has abused this power for years to promote himself at any and all costs. Despite repeated and blatant disregard for the betterment of anyone but himself, he continued to dominate the media both online and off. My hope is that his suspension from social media platforms will, if anything, momentarily reduce some anxiety among internet users as we transition into Joe Biden’s presidency.
But suspending Donald Trump is only a very small part of the solution. It’s like trying to fight a wildfire with a water bottle. It has become crucial to the safety of our democracy that social media platforms prevent experts of mass scale manipulation to be allowed continued access to a platform with global reach. It is time for them to take responsibility for the ways their products impact real lives. Roger McNamee rightfully pointed out in his article for WIRED that these platforms have repeatedly “prioritized their own profits and prerogatives over democracy and the public health and safety of the people who use their products.” Social media platforms should feel a responsibility and social pressure to take action against users who use false and dangerous rhetoric, especially ones with large and loyal followings. The same platforms that pride themselves on curating human connection should be more concerned with their tendency to promote dangerously manipulative content.
We should be deeply concerned as a nation with the extent to which lies about COVID-19, vaccinations and the integrity of our election process have been able to reach people and change minds. Andrew Marant for the New Yorker pointed out that “Like all autocrats and propagandists, Trump knows that rhetoric is a precursor of action: that only by repeatedly saying the unsayable can he create the conditions in which his loyalists can imagine doing the unimaginable.” This deception was carefully, intentionally designed to identify the cracks and paradoxes of the American psyche and distort them into extraordinarily deep divisions. But once divided, it’s going to take a lot more than blocking one man’s account to repair the very structures that upheld him for so long. Now and forever there will continue to be individuals who will try to use social media for the single purpose of power. This is a threat that will never disappear but that can be thwarted by disincentivizing algorithms that promote divisive content and instead prioritizing access to useful, factual information. The social responsibility of these platforms has become an issue of public health, safety and now of national security.
Wednesday’s events re-ignited a sort of cultural reckoning with the consequences of social media and if there’s any time to take a stance, it’s now. In 2020, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) went from a niche department for companies in hot water to an expectation from many consumers. Karen B. Moore wrote in Forbes earlier this year that “CSR can power profitability because people will appreciate and remember companies that stepped up to lead in 2020 and beyond.”
It would be a smart move on the part of Facebook and Twitter to take a leadership role in developing a safer social media environment. Some concerns have been raised about no-censorship sites like Parler absorbing the user bases of platforms like Facebook and Twitter if they were to increase restrictions. But despite its recent infamy for right-wing social networking, Parler has not yet been able to gather a competitive user base and whatever base they do have might be short lived — Google has already removed the app from their Play store and Apple has threatened to do the same if they do not begin enforcing speech restrictions in the next 24 hours.
But what is more important than any regulation or corporate restructuring is that we continue to have conversations about the community standards of digital social spheres. We are spending more and more of our lives online. It’s where we get our news and talk to our neighbors. We cannot keep brushing off the importance of these interactions and we should not embrace their rewards while denying their risks. We have to acknowledge failures so that we can learn from them. With the news this week that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have suspended Donald Trump indefinitely, I urge Americans not to lose our memory of this master manipulator for he will not be the last.