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Blow Through Social Networks: How to Defend Democracy without Losing Freedom

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The 6 January events in Washington, D.C., when right-wing extremists who support Donald Trump’s stormed the US Capitol building, shocked the United States and the whole world. The Democratic Party is initiating the impeachment process, the second one for Trump, for inciting a revolt. Social networking websites, which the President actively used to maintain an emotional connection with his supporters, made an unprecedented decision and deprived Donald Trump of the opportunity to use their platforms.

YouTube joined Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by introducing new rules that allow shutting down channels that spread false information about the US election. Parler, an American social media platform popular among conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump, on which they agreed to storm the Capitol, was removed by Apple and Google from their own app stores. Moreover, Amazon kicked Parler off its cloud servers, which actually led to the closure of this platform.

The political consequences of the actions of Trump’s aggressive supporters and Trump himself, which resulted in the death of five people and the damage of national property, are not yet clear. Moreover, the FBI reported that right-wing extremists are preparing attacks on office buildings in all states ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. However, the harsh reaction of tech giants, which resorted to the operational blocking of communication capabilities of potential rebels, caused fear and criticism even among Donald Trump’s far from ardent supporters.

In particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the decision to shut down the US president’s accounts questionable. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert noted that Merkel considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended as “the right to freedom of expression is of fundamental importance and can only be restricted by legislators, not private companies.” At the same time, social network platforms are responsible for ensuring that political debate “is not poisoned with hatred, lies and incitement to violence.”

Obviously, the problem voiced by the German Chancellor cannot be solved in a simple way. It should be borne in mind that private companies owning social platforms acted in conditions of force majeure, an emergency situation, when a direct threat to democratic institutions, national security, and the lives of American citizens arose. Another question is whether social networks could have prevented such developments as the incitement to hatred in far-right and/or conspiratorial groups that lasted for a long time and eventually resulted in a surge of street activity.

Ukraine faced the same phenomenon in 2014 when Russian aggression was accompanied by extreme activity of supporters of the “Russian spring” on social networks. Moreover, sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between ideological supporters of Putin and propagandists “on duty.” Without a doubt, they were united by the desire to inflict the greatest damage on Ukraine and to strengthen the military efforts of the aggressor and separatists. Specially created groups helped them not only to exercise informational and psychological influence on Ukraine but also to recruit volunteers and to coordinate the actions of anti-Ukrainian forces both directly in the conflict zone and throughout Ukraine. Meanwhile, the National Security and Defence Council adopted a decision to block Russian social network services (Yandex, Mail.Ru Group, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki) in Ukraine for three years only in May 2017; to be honest, it was somewhat late. In May 2020, the decision was extended by President Zelensky. In both 2017 and 2020, there were doubts as to whether such measures did more harm than good, as there was a clear restriction on freedom of expression. But Ukraine must respect democratic rights and freedoms and at the same time prevent the threats posed to the very existence of these rights and freedoms by external hostile forces, in particular through the abuse of freedoms which Russia lacks.

Undoubtedly, there is a big difference between the government’s decision and the decision of private companies to restrict the actions of users of social networks and other Internet services, just as information security measures of democratic states differ significantly from opposition hunting in countries with police authoritarianism. No wonder there are fears that actions against the network activity of aggressive supporters of Trump will be used by the Putin regime to justify its struggle with opponents of the Kremlin. But democracy must find ways to remain a democracy without losing the opportunity to effectively defend itself against the subversive activities of enemies who sometimes disguise themselves as its biggest supporters. The information age creates both great opportunities and unpredictable challenges. And democracy is the key to finding an adequate response to threats.

Leonid Shvets

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