Social Media Finally Broke the Public Sphere

Social Media Finally Broke the Public Sphere

Liberal democracies must work to recreate a sense of shared identity online.

After the storming of the U.S. Capitol by an insurgent lynch mob driven by far-right social media conspiracy theories and stirred on by then President Donald Trump, at least 10 market-dominating tech companies took action through content moderation and account suspension. Chief among those removed was Trump himself, banned from Twitter, and Parler, an alternative social media platform that markets itself to far-right extremists, which was ejected from its host, Amazon Web Services.

The ban had an immediate effect on internet discourse: Within a week, researchers tracked a 73 percent reduction in disinformation about election fraud on Twitter and other platforms. Amazon’s filing against Parler documents months of futile work to convince the platform to suppress users’ explicit calls for violence in accordance with their terms of service. While some argue that tech companies should take similar action against other world leaders who use populism to stir up mass violence, critics of the decision are alarmed at the supposed restriction on free speech by tech companies.

This debate is overwrought, but also raises bigger questions. In 2021, losing a Twitter account meaningfully limits the president’s influence, as it would any other figure. That shouldn’t be confused with his freedom of speech, which remains unshackled by the government. But it does point to the way in which big tech has come to dominate and shatter the public sphere. Yet, thanks to the failure of politicians to meaningfully act through legislation, tech firms are policing themselves through inconsistently enforced terms of service.