ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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​Rethinking the Democratic Dilemma

Viewing tech giants like Facebook and Twitter as principal agents of free speech has far-reaching consequences on the health and functioning of a democracy.

Political discourse in the latter half of 2020 and the dawn of 2021 was dominated by the issue of big tech censorship and the overarching influence that social media giants can exert on the public’s viewpoint on any matter. This contention reached a tipping point with Twitter famously placing a “warning tag” to former United States (US) President Donald Trump’s allegation of election fraud and subsequently banning him from the platform. Here in India, one was witness to the worsening relationship between the union government and Twitter over the social media giant’s refusal to comply with gag orders regarding the farmers’ protests. At the same time, both Twitter and Facebook received flak for silencing pro-farmer accounts and content. To the onlooker, it seemed as if the social media giants were trying to straddle two contradictory positions: not antagonising the incumbent government, and also not being perceived as disregarding the essence of free speech, given that the foundational values of many major social media companies are based on unfettered free expression. The important question one must ask is: who made these tech behemoths the principal agents of free speech?

This was not the first time that a social media platform had come to be at odds with state polity. The 2018 Brazil elections saw the Facebook-owned WhatsApp playing a pivotal role in a misinformation campaign that the opposition claimed to have helped Jair Bolsonaro win the presidential election. And further back in 2008, former American president Barack Obama owed his historical win partly to his campaign’s early advantage in rallying support through the emerging “new media.” This was to repeat again in 2012, when his campaign leveraged social media’s power with an in-house analytics tool that crushed Mitt Romney’s campaign by a massive margin. In 2014, Narendra Modi too had relied extensively on an “online army” of supporters that gave him control over the narrative while incorporating social media as a critical tool of communication for the very government that is now doling out gag orders. Facebook patted itself over its capability to nudge users to go out and vote during the 2010 US congressional elections showing the organisation’s commitment to being part of the democratic process. However, this euphoria would die with the multinational Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 that saw the big data gathered by Facebook used for political advertising.

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Updated On : 1st Jun, 2021

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