During this storm of world-changing events, social media giants have found themselves under the glare of a very powerful light.
No, not the kind of “very powerful light” Donald Trump suggested might be shone into the human body to combat COVID-19: rather, Facebook and Twitter have been placed under the political spotlight in the United States.
This happened after Twitter flagged two tweets from Donald Trump as containing misleading information about voting by mail, including a link for users to follow and inform themselves of the facts.
Trump's response was typically venomous, threatening to pass laws to prevent such treacherous actions in the future, quickly bringing himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey into a political skirmish, or at least entanglement, that could come to be seen as a watershed moment in the US: the point at which any remaining line between business person and politician at the top of US politics became completely blurred.
The "POTUS is also bound by Twitter Rules" conundrum
As social media platforms have become one of the first world’s primary means of communication, and certainly the chief medium through which public discourse is conducted in affluent nations, an interesting conundrum has emerged—and one that would almost certainly remain a theoretical issue, if the US was under different leadership.
Social media platforms must have policies when it comes to what can and cannot be posted by their users, we have come to learn, to prevent hate speech and false information spreading like wildfire, giving birth to dangerous falsehoods and "movements," provoking acts of violence, and influencing the results of elections, among other toxic results.
When world leaders join these platforms and use them to communicate to the public, attracting tens of millions of followers, they become “just another” of the users on that platform in many ways—but also one whose posts can have effects like the above on an exponentially magnified scale.
If the platforms consider themselves guided by democratic principles, their policies should apply to world leaders as much as the rest of their users. And if they want to protect their users from dangerous misinformation, they must include accounts with tens of millions of followers.
In days gone by, we could assume that any conflict between the leaders of social media platforms and world leaders who break their user behaviour policies would be left as an untested hypothetical, due to social norms and expectations about the behaviours of democratically elected world leaders.
As with so many other hypothetical dangers that we could assume posed no risk in the real world before, with Donald Trump as POTUS, it's now not safe to assume. The danger has been put to a real test.
The political empowerment of CEOs
This moves the social media giants of Silicon Valley into an extremely political position, and essentially elevates their CEOs to unelected political advisers playing a prominent role in daily politics. It means their personal judgement must be used, day-to-day, as to how freely world leaders are allowed to communicate to their public, balanced against what amount of dangerous misinformation they can allow to be broadcast to their users.
From Trump’s perspective, any form of intervention is a breech of freedom of speech, and an affront to what he understands to be "total authority" over the United States.
Of course, in reality neither social media platform actually censored what Trump could post: all of his posts remained publicly accessible in their original form.
Twitter simply flagged a tweet containing misleading information, attaching an alert linking through to a page that highlights related facts from trusted sources—informing the user enough to prevent them being misled by reading these tweets in a vacuum. Facebook let the same posts stand without adding any form of fact-checking labels.
But the whiff of social media platforms acting to limit the extent Trump can use their platforms to mislead their users en masse was enough for him to charge into battle, as if wildly swinging an outsized claymore on an empty battlefield.
Now Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, CEOs that Trump implicitly promoted to national political moderators by so frequently mis-using their platforms, find themselves in a fight they would probably rather have nothing to do with.
A fundamentally corrupt position
More interesting than the particular stances of each platform and how they apply their policies to politicians, I think, is what this particular incident signifies.
Donald Trump, a lifelong businessman who manoeuvred his way into the role of POTUS through the use of exploitative marketing techniques, is having his behaviour checked, communications to the US public vetted, by the CEOs of two of the largest companies in the United States.
It's turtles all the way down.
The top of US politics is now literally occupied in multiple directions with businessmen as direct decision makers, without so much as a “buffer,” in the parlance of The Godfather, required between politician and business person to make this digestible to the public.
Of course, some business people will be individuals of as high or higher moral standing as politicians ever were. Jack Dorsey comes across as a good sort, and Zuckerberg uses his intellect to apply moral principles to problems when necessary.
That’s kind of besides the point, though.
While business people are able to put moral principles first, too, it does not lessen the insanity of having them directly make top level decisions in politics.
Profit is the underpinning principle of the business world, the ethic by which business people have been guided by in their decision making, and have trained their minds to think on.
Democracy has different underpinning principles: ones that allow businesses to operate on self-interested principles of financial gain, by occupying a space above them and holding them in check.
Politicians and business people at the top of democracy have formed a counter balance to one another, in many ways, by serving two distinct interests that often conflict with one another.
Yes, the US has obvious, long-standing problems of financial interests influencing and deciding its politics, and endangering the integrity of its democratic basis.
Until now, though, that has been called “corruption.”