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Social media companies are not the saviors of democracy - they could lead us to its downfall

An ironic reversal of events forced social media companies to close the account of Donald Trump - an authoritarian president whose rise to power and attacks on democracy they themselves had made possible. It was the social media companies that banned Trump after the Washington DC riots. At the same time, they are one of the main engines behind the harmful effects of fake news and the increasing division of our societies. We explain in this article why we should break the power of big tech corporations.

In the turmoil of early 2021, at a time when the world's worst pandemic in a century was still raging and the U.S. Capitol was under fire from a pro-Trump mob eager to overturn the election result , big tech companies took an unprecedented step. Social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter blocked the accounts of an incumbent US president.

The existential threat that the capital riot and Trump's fraudulent allegations of a stolen election posed to the democratic process required extraordinary measures. Trump's authoritarian impulses should have been suppressed long before. We don't deny that. The question, however, is whether the power to decide and carry out these extraordinary measures should rest solely in the hands of the CEOs of some private companies.

The sovereign - to use the expression coined by the political scientist Carl Schmitt in the last century - is the one who decides on the state of emergency. Since the extraordinary decision to block Trump's Twitter and Facebook accounts was not made by the judiciary or legislature, but by private companies, does that make them de facto sovereign entities?

In another notable, albeit less commented, decision just days after the Capitol attack, Twitter refused to automatically transfer Trump's followers to Biden, as they did four years earlier when Trump took over Obama's account. Biden was forced to start over with zero followers with no explanation from Twitter.

Was this a show of sovereign power? With big tech wielding that kind of influence over an outgoing and a new US president, one can only imagine what they are capable of when it comes to less powerful sovereign states in the world. Or defenseless citizens. In any case, the events of early 2021 exposed these enormous power differences.

The dissolution of the sovereignty achieved by modern nation-states throws us back into a modern form of technological feudalism. While all eyes are on the US elections, democracy around the world is threatened by the exploitative, ruthlessly for-profit and intransparent workings of the big tech corporations.

More than a decade of massive social media use, powered by algorithms aimed solely at maximizing sales, even if that means manipulating our fears and reinforcing our prejudices, has polarized the public debate in incredible ways as well created fertile ground for the spread of unproven claims and ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Big tech companies have made themselves indispensable in many areas of life. In many countries, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet, as Facebook Zero enables access to Facebook without cell phone charges.

It would be inconceivable to conduct a political campaign, let alone public office, without the massive use of social media. They are now making themselves just as indispensable in controlling the resulting abuse and wielding an unprecedented power of censorship.

It is ironic that Big Tech must take down an authoritarian president whose rise to power and attacks on democracy they themselves made possible. Social media platforms are trying to portray themselves as the cure for the disease of modern democracy for which they are largely responsible, but we should absolutely reject a narrative that sees the quasi-sovereign power of big tech as inevitable.

While their actions make them de facto sovereign, the main problem is not the content but the size of the corporations.

Ultimately, we - DiEM25’s Spontaneous Collective for Technological Sovereignty - do not believe that a legal solution (either through an intra- or supranational approach) is feasible, as a whole new court system would have to be established for the flood of cases if a posting is taken down.

A viable alternative must therefore be the decentralization of power, not monopolies or oligopolies of a few very powerful corporations, so that information and its flow are not controlled by a few.

Various platforms already exist and are operated and used by people who are aware of digital sovereignty (and not driven by shareholder gains), but the majority of people have yet to question the supremacy of big tech.

DiEM25 has made technological sovereignty an important pillar and you can read all about it here.

Also, start using alternatives to the big tech corporations, some existing alternatives are:

PeerTube as an alternative to Youtube

Mastodon as an alternative to Facebook

Matrix as an alternative to WhatsApp

Mattermost as an alternative to Slack

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.

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