IR & Politics

Is banning Donald Trump’s social media accounts a democratic act?

Shortly after the Capitol attack on January 6th, 2021, Twitter, Google, and Facebook took resolute actions by banning Mr. Trump’s social media accounts. These restrictions were largely underpinned by “security concerns” arguments. However, it has raised numerous questions about whether those were the right decisions to be made, and most importantly, have these restrictions been democratic. It is hard to give concrete approval for the “democraticness” of any action per se, especially if the actions were taken in order to ensure public security. Thus, without deepening into what Mr. Trump said and how much he was involved in the Capitol attack, this paper will mainly focus on the decision taken by major communication companies such as Twitter and Facebook which have banned Mr. Trump’s accounts by depriving him of sharing his ideas with his followers and supporters not only in the US but all around the world. Probably, the best answer to this situation can be given by Professors of Political Science Robert Dahl and Guillermo O’Donnell.

Firstly, let’s remember Professor Robert Dahl who is one of the pioneers of the democratic theory (if not the first one.) According to Dr. Dahl, there are certain criteria of democratic regimes, and the absence of one of them means the regime is not democratic. Thus, in order to call a regime democratic, it must meet some requirements and citizens must have the rights: 1) to form and join organizations; 2) to freely express their ideas; 3) to vote in free and fair elections; 3) to reach alternative sources of information; 4) to be permitted to hold public offices; 5) to compete for political support.

These are basic requirements democratic regime, however, modern liberal democracies would certainly have more. Our task is to analyze the actions of social media platforms banning Mr. Trump’s accounts and figure out whether they contradict the basic requirements of democracy. By doing so, we will be able to call those restrictions either democratic or autocratic.

As it is mentioned, the second point of basic democracies is freedom of expression. This principle allows any citizen to freely express his / her ideas and feelings without worrying about prosecution or suppression. Consequently, shutting down Mr. Trump’s social media accounts by those who are in charge of social media platforms seems to be an undemocratic act. The reason for that is the violation of the second criteria, as Twitter and Facebook have checked the abilities of an American citizen (the President) to freely express his ideas in his posts. It must be noted that the companies did not show an example of a violation of the organizational rules and simply put it as a “national security threat” with no further extended explanation. So the private right of President Trump was violated. At least, many would think so.

However, Guillermo O’Donnell’s might make us think otherwise. In his research called “Horizontal Accountability in New Polyarchies”, O’Donnell creates a conception in which he distinguishes three major groups of components of democracy: democratic, republican, and liberal. Democratic components lie on the vertical line by ensuring free and fair elections which permits citizens to influence those holding power and punish them via votes in case they do not fulfill citizens’ expectations. However, liberal and republican components are placed on the horizontal lines by separately affecting citizens and the government respectively. Based on this, liberal and republican components contradict often which represents the confrontation of freedom in society and order in it.

Republicanism puts an emphasis on public good while liberalism focuses on private rights. For instance, we might remember the FBI-Apple dispute over information sharing when the FBI demanded to disclose the data of some users while Apple strongly opposed it by arguing that it would be a violation of the privacy policy. In this case, the FBI, as a state agency, theoretically advocates for republican components as it is concerned about the public good, while Apple protects liberal components with its commitment to privacy rights.

Now we must analyze how we can apply this theory to the case of banning Mr.Trump’s social media accounts. I believe it should be simple now. Thus, according to liberal components, Twitter and Facebook acted undemocratically by barring Mr.Trump from using social media where he had more than 100 million followers combined. On the one hand, it is a direct attack on Mr. Trump’s private rights and suppression of his freedom of expression. On the other hand, Mr. Trump, in case he refuses to smoothly transfer the power, could have galvanized his followers by paving the way for violence and chaos in the US. Although the latter is a tiny possibility, no one could fully falsify it.

In conclusion, by answering the question that was put above, it is difficult to accuse social media platforms (such as Facebook or twitter) of violating democracy as republican components are on their side despite liberal components being critical of this kind of restriction of expression. However, there is still room for further speculations. First of all, both Dahl and O’Donnell refer their theories to the state apparatus which is responsible for providing society with democracy while in this case the measures were undertaken by private social media companies free of state regulations. Obviously, it raises some questions about the new role gained by social media companies in our daily lives. Can digital companies harm or violate one or all three components of democracy? If yes, should regulations be put in force? If yes, which ones?…

To find out more stay tuned!

Anar Imanzade

Anar Imanzade is a Master's student at Bogazici University currently working on his thesis. Based in Baku, Azerbaijan.
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