The advent of the internet brought many changes to the world, amongst them is the inadvertent transformation of politics from liberal democracy as it was traditionally known in the post-war period. Social media allows politicians and citizens alike to make their opinions known and have their voices heard by all members of society, young and old. Politics has never seemed so reachable to the average individual; a facet of life once reserved for powerful politicians who appeared on TV or on the radio to give lengthy and often incomprehensible speeches is now accessible to everyone in the most unlimited way possible. Aside from transforming the very nature of political campaigning and governing, the presence of social media has manifested itself in various other forms of politics, and namely in the very foundations of American liberal democracy.
According to Thomas Jefferson, “a Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on Earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse”. It is undeniable that freedom of speech, protected in the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, is one of the most important characteristics of both the nation’s government and the political consciousness of the American population. Former American President Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is a contentious topic of discussion because it brings to light contrasting elements of the technicalities of this freedom. Who has the right to police freedom of speech, and even more importantly that of the President? What does the precedent set by Twitter mean for the future of liberal democracy? Should there even be such a platform in the first place that gives anyone, both the creator and user, immense power over other human beings? These are only some of the many ambiguities and questions raised by the entire situation, without even entering into the realm of effects on non-democratic or semi-democratic countries, which in turn further emphasizes the size of the wasp’s nest that was uncovered.
It is important to note that the ramifications of the ban haven’t only been felt in America, where the topic “Trump” is still a sensitive one even a month after the start of the new presidency. On the 14th of January 2021, Ugandan citizens went to the polls in order to elect their new president. The incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, received almost 59% of the total votes whereas the opposition, Bobi Wine, only 35%. These results came after a nationwide internet blackout the day before the election. Social media plays an incredibly important role in Ugandan politics, where state media is heavily censored; the Ugandan population has taken to using media platforms as places where to “air grievances…spawning debates around accountability and governance”. The magic of social media is that it provides people with a venue to freely express themselves and exchange ideas without as much state control because, although official state media is kept on a tight leash, social media is largely out of the government’s control. Unlike in Western liberal democracies, where social media is used more for entertainment than anything else, in states with authoritarian leaders, social media is a tool towards democracy.
The recent presidential campaign in Uganda has been one of the most highly debated in a very long time. From the outset, it appeared clear that Wine had all the cards stacked against him. Journalists of all types endured a high degree of brutality, such as police assault and regulatory sanctions, highly disincentivizing thorough and unbiased campaign coverage. Furthermore, opposition candidates have been denied access to broadcast outlets, both small and large, while Museveni carried out daily appearances on important media outlets, emphasizing his important actions and carrying out an extensive propaganda campaign. The disparity in campaign opportunities is evidence for the importance of social media in the Ugandan political proceedings, and how social media platforms have become such an integral element of modern day political rhetoric, specifically in the fight for democracy and against authoritarianism.
The Ugandan Communications Commission’s temporary suspension of operation of all internet gateways was highly criticized and condemned by Twitter, which was called hypocritical by many sources as, on paper, it did not stray far from the platform’s actions against Trump. Those who made these criticisms appear to have entirely missed the point: the overwhelming role of social media in democratic proceedings is dangerous and uncontrollable, as it is apparent that it can be used both for positive and negative outcomes. To quote Leah Lievrouw, a professor at UCLA: “To date, virtually no democratic state or system has sorted out how to deal with this challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of the democratic processes…”. This is incredibly important to acknowledge, since the vulnerability of social media allows it to become a dangerous tool when placed in the hands of the wrong parties, and the target of this new weapon is always the vulnerable population.
The very nature of social media and the lack of control over the information that flows through the platform gives leaders and malignant forces new powers to exercise greater control over populations, and to a certain extent can lead to a repression of basic freedoms. For instance, extremist parties on both sides of the spectrum often use algorithms to “stimulate and broadcast false flavors of democratic representations to the people”. The rapid rise of populism in post-2008 crisis Europe is only one of the many examples of the power of social media in mobilizing parts of the population. New topics of contention between the right and left have only exacerbated and created new social cleavages, which intensify societal discontent rather than uniting the population. The use of technology to engineer elections and push certain political agendas undermines classical political approaches associated with democracy, and leads to the complete exclusion of large portions of the population from the political spectrum. Among the myriad of problems related to the widespread reach of the digital age, one common problem is consistent: the age of liberal democracy designed in the post-war period to optimize welfare, liberties, both political and human, is in danger of being subverted. Civil unrest is imminent in many democratic countries, where the frustration of being unheard is high, which is ironic since the current digital age is the one in which people have the greatest ability to make their voices carry and have their opinions hold weight.
Twitter’s decision to ban Trump from the app generated many opinions, both supportive and contrary to it, but the problem is deeper and goes beyond the silencing of a provocateur. The case of the Ugandan election is only a small example of the ramifications of important decisions such as this one, and it is clear that it will permeate the current political sphere, resulting in a new form of democratic debate, that might be better or worse than its original form. The decrease in trust in political institutions stems from many factors, including the overwhelming role of technology in the political debate, and without proper inter- and intranational regulation, the situation will only degenerate. The limitations of freedom and the ambiguity of the situation leads to a slightly controversial question: is it better to live in a democracy, where we know nothing but believe we have everything, or in a more authoritarian regime where the status of one’s rights and liberties is, ironically, clearer?