Mark Zuckerberg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump and over 70,000 QAnon-related accounts, two things quickly became apparent: 1) it was the right thing to do and had a salutary effect on public discourse, and 2) tech moguls have a frightening amount of control over democracy and public discourse.

Of course, most of the Right and parts of the libertarian left have strongly objected to the decision to deplatform Trump and right-wing conspiracists. But democracy depends largely on agreement on a basic set of facts, and widely shared conspiracy theories about stolen elections or cannibal pedophilia can lead to violence and authoritarianism. Social media has been primarily responsible for allowing those conspiracy theories to flourish, and social media has an obligation to fix the problem.

And indeed, deplatforming conspiracy promoters has been proven to work, both now and in the past. In the wake of the recent bans of Trump and QAnon mavens, election misinformation online has dropped by over 70%:

Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week, research firm Zignal Labs has found, underscoring the power of tech companies to limit the falsehoods poisoning public debate when they act aggressively.

The new research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm reported that conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter.

Election disinformation had for months been a major subject of online misinformation, beginning even before the Nov. 3 election and pushed heavily by Trump and his allies.

Zignal found it dropped swiftly and steeply on Twitter and other platforms in the days after the Twitter ban took hold on Jan. 8.

The problem, of course, is that if a single push of a button by Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey can so profoundly affect democratic discourse and even election outcomes, then our democracy is functionally profoundly affected if not controlled outright by a few autocratic corporations. After all, what if Facebook and Twitter had taken these actions far earlier? What if their leadership, or the whims of their CEOs, changed to being sympathetic with autocracy? It’s far too much power in too few hands, without democratic accountability.

The flip side of the argument, though, is that it would indeed be totalitarian for the government to dictate to a private company that it must allow certain speakers or irresponsible speech on its platforms, even when they run counter to its terms of service or even expose it to liability. It was comical to hear conservatives claim that “Twitter censorship” resembled “Communist China” when the reality in China is that media networks are required to support its political leaders–quite the opposite of being empowered to ban them.

Both sides of the debate over free speech and social media then culminate in unacceptable outcomes: either forcing these companies to continue to promote misinformation destructive to democracy or allowing their whimsical terms of service to promote or restrict the speech of any political actors they see fit.

The fundamental challenge is that these companies have too much control over the information economy to begin with. Facebook has more power over the news people see than the biggest newspapers in the country combined. Facebook and Google allegedly colluded to lock down ownership of the online advertising market, which in turn affects the financial incentives of journalism as a whole. Twitter has effectively become the public square in which political elites and influencers drive narratives.

It won’t be easy to do, but creating a healthy and organic information environment will require significant public regulation of social media companies and content and renewed investment in publicly funded journalism as in many other major democracies. Antitrust action from the Biden administration can also help.

As long as we are stuck in this privately controlled social media dominated system, deplatforming the worst actors–even if they’re the president of the United States–is the best of a set of imperfect options. But long-term, we will have to fix the system itself if we want a healthy democracy.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.