Global Social Media In The Era Of Great Power Conflict

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Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

Loose Tweets Sink Reputations

While on the one hand Twitter flexed its muscles when it permanently de-platformed a sitting US president and deactivated tens of thousands of other accounts, with Facebook closely following suit against accounts the two social media giants claimed were “disinformation” concerning the 2020 election results, in practice it was a pyrrhic victory at best. The real power of Facebook, Twitter, other social media lay in their reputation as essentially neutral, impartial platforms where free speech was triumphant and the invisible hand of the marketplace of ideas dictated which accounts would get millions of followers and which would languish in obscurity.

That, of course, was never really true. Twitter and Facebook were no strangers to muting, banning, or at least stealth-banning accounts that promoted ideas inconsistent with whatever dogma, social or political, prevailed in Washington D.C. at the moment. However, this tended to be done in dribs and drabs, not in avalanches which moreover explicitly targeted specific political candidates or parties. Twitter’s knee-jerk panic-induced purge of Trump and Trump-supporting accounts that followed the events of January 6, 2020 on the flimsy pretense that there was a “risk of violence” created by the mere existence of these accounts, showed that @Jack and indeed the entire @TwitterSupport team are not impartial at all, for all the world to see. Naturally, as Twitter and Biden apologists were quick to point out, the First Amendment does not extent to private entities, which means that, legally, US social media giants were in the clear. Unironically defending a mega-corporation’s inherent right to censor speech in a way that US government institutions are prohibited from doing was not exactly a very good position to be in. That is a blow to the foundations of Twitter’s free-speech reputation from which it can never recover. That toothpaste can never be put back in the tube again. Banning accounts, rather than suspending until “offending” material is deleted, is a form of “prior restraint” of free speech that is explicitly prohibited by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Even such Donald Trump non-fans as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron found themselves decrying Twitter’s decision to muzzle the US president, on the basis of it being a corporate abuse of power that should be reserved only to national governments.

Twitter’s epic self-own became evident within days, in the context of elections in Uganda in which Twitter, no doubt at the behest of US intelligence failure community and/or other political and economic interests, attempted to meddle by locking accounts favoring candidates the US government clearly didn’t favor. Uganda’s retaliation in the form of shutting down Twitter in all of the country led to a predictable Twitter boilerplate reaction concerning the sanctity of free speech that was equally predictably jeered by US Trump supporters who by now were less than impressed with Twitter’s commitment to open political discourse. It seems rather inevitable that other countries will follow suit whenever Twitter-based political meddling becomes too much to tolerate, without exposing themselves to the usual tut-tutting by pearl-clutching Western liberals who praised Twitter’s shut-down of Trump. US social media networks rapidly won reputation as US propaganda and influence instruments will facilitate effective action against them in the future by countries interested in defending their sovereignty and integrity of political institutions.

Ne Parler Pas

Twitter’s and Facebook’s blowing of own cover, as it were, was quickly followed by the saga of the Parler social media network which revealed a far deeper behind-the-scenes collusion among information technology firms in support of Bide and the Democrats. Parler was a low-budget, low-quality operation set up to cash in on Twitter’s banning and shadow-banning policies. Its sole advantage was that the absence of literally any restrictions on political expression, which meant that it quickly became a network with a pronounced GOP lean. The low-budget aspect of the company meant that instead of setting up its own “server farm”, with mirroring and denial of service protections against the inevitable hacking attempts that incidentally also cost real money, it opted to have its operations hosted on servers own by none other than Amazon, which has extensive dealings with and contracts from many US intelligence agencies, including secret services. A rumor that Donald Trump might react to Twitter ban by holding court on Parler was enough for Amazon to peremptorily kick Parler off its servers. Other Parler vendors, down to law firms, similarly refused services, all of it happening to a company against which no government investigation or other action has even been initiated. Another piece of evidence, as if one were needed, of the existence of a “deep state” in the US operating outside the official legal framework.

It turns out, however, that Parler is run not only by cheapskates but experts at trolling because in their search for an alternative hosting platform they settled on a provider with servers based in…Russia, where their operations evidently do not break any laws, written or unwritten, and therefore can proceed unimpeded, in stark contrast with the United States. That revelation prompted a furious response from Congress Democrats who are now demanding an FBI investigation into Parler’s Russia ties and Russia’s involvement in the events of January 6. Again, a panicky knee-jerk reaction that will set up a precedent not only for the United States but also for the rest of the world, that social media networks on servers outside one’s country are automatically to be viewed as foreign agents.

War of Words

One way or the other, things will never be the same for social media, in the United States or elsewhere. The idea of a global free speech commons conveniently hosted by US social media networks in cozy collaboration with US intelligence services has been revealed to be a pernicious myth and is now irretrievably dead. Going forward, no self-respecting country will allow its political discourse space to be in the hands of unknown, shadowy, and unaccountable US actors. In practical terms it means demands for transparency and regulation of social media, even in the United States where the Republicans will eventually return to power and settle scores with @Jack and @Zuck. Elsewhere in the world, we are likely to see the creation of social media alternatives, as well as the growth in popularity of existing ones such as Telegram or even VKontakte. Russia’s newly adopted legal framework for hefty fines to be leveled against social media firms for allowing disinformation and other socially undesirable activities will become the norm all over the world.

This may lead to a situation in which the world’s polarization into hostile economic and military blocs is mirrored by the fragmentation of the Internet, including of social media, into national or regional networks, to the detriment of the currently existing global one. China’s early banning of US social media networks from its country, a decision whose wisdom is now plainly evident, may become the global norm. The deepening US political crisis that has not ended with Biden’s inauguration means that the United States is liable to lead the world in restricting the activities of foreign social media firms on its territory, under the guise of “combating domestic terrorism” that is Biden’s actual top priority, thus providing further ammunition for advocates of doing the same in their own countries. Twitter’s continued suppression of speech, such as suspension of a Chinese official government account for supposedly “dehumanizing” the Uyghurs, again ostensibly on the basis of the company’s terms of service rather than US official guidance, will only accelerate process.

Whether matters will deteriorate to such an extent remains to be seen. If US continues to escalate its aggression against countries unwilling to become its client states, social media will not remain unaffected by it. However, Twitter’s and Facebook’s panicky reaction to the January 6 “insurrection” had greatly weakened one of crucial tools of US “hybrid warfare”.

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