On Wednesday, Jan. 6, following a speech by President Donald Trump at a rally dedicated to the false claim that he won the presidential election in November, a large crowd of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving five dead – including a Capitol police officer – and causing damage throughout the building that serves as the seat of representative government in the United States.
Although the images from the Capitol were shocking, the event itself was partly the product of an atmosphere of paranoia and anger that had been building for years, primarily on social media. Two days after the Capitol was stormed, Trump and many of his supporters were banned from a number of prominent social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. This in turn led to accusations that a handful of powerful private companies effectively control public discourse in the United States.
Associate Professor of Journalism Marie Shanahan, who won awards as a reporter and editor at the Hartford Courant before joining the UConn faculty, is an authority on the rapidly shifting online media landscape. Her 2018 book, “Journalism, Online Comments, and the Future of Public Discourse,” grapples with many of the questions being asked in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol. She recently spoke with UConn Today about the role social media plays in shaping American political life – in ways both good and bad. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
While obscure social media platforms like Parler, Gab, and Telegram have gotten a lot of attention recently as gathering places for the kinds of far-right activists who were instrumental in what happened at the Capitol, most of the planning for that event seems to have taken place in the open, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. To what extent was this event a product of social media?
Social media can tap really quickly into the power of the crowd. That’s what it’s good at. You can’t blame it for causing an insurrection, but social media certainly can play a role in accelerating one. Thanks to the Internet, we all now have the ability to interact constantly. People don’t have to be concerned about geographical distances or time differences, because now you can directly communicate all the time with people all over the world, and they can communicate with you. So you have this active, participatory culture online, but it doesn’t necessarily stay online. An idea for a protest, a political rally, or even what we saw on Jan. 6, can move out of the online space and into real life.
But the mainstream media is also responsible in some ways. People are gathering in these obscure corners of the Internet to plot armed marches, but I recently read a New York Times story that detailed those plans in the first three paragraphs. Maybe these people are on the fringe, but as soon as it gets picked up by the mainstream media, it becomes part of the larger discourse. I’m not sure journalists think enough about their ability to amplify.
It’s hard to talk about Donald Trump’s presidency without talking about social media. What might change now that he seems to have been permanently banned from the most popular platforms?
The idea of deplatforming Donald Trump is certainly interesting, because he has been communicating directly with the American public through his Twitter account for more than a decade, even before he ran for office.
He’s a relentless communicator, and that helped make him a very charismatic leader. He’s constantly posting on Twitter – or, he was, until now – he’s constantly making appearances on friendly media outlets, he was constantly holding rallies, and all the while, he was saying things that commanded the attention of journalists and drove the daily news cycle. It was fascinating to see this loop: he would see something on Fox News, then he would tweet about it, then other people would tweet about his tweet, then journalists would pick up what people were saying about his tweet, then Fox News would comment on the whole thing.
By doing all that, Trump helped to form a community among his supporters. His followers aren’t just reading his tweets, they’re connecting with each other, and they’re seeing the same messages amplified by the media outlets they pay attention to, by people in the Republican Party who are social media influencers themselves, and so on. The metaphor of the echo chamber is very real here.
It’s not just Trump, in other words. When he leaves office, even if he remains deplatformed, these issues aren’t going away.
Speaking of that deplatforming, even though Facebook and Twitter can ban any user who violates their terms of service, is there some validity to the argument that in doing so they’re restricting free speech?
These are private companies, so it’s not a free speech issue. But at the same time, these are the places where the American people are talking to each other. Do you want Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey in charge of the public square? It raises the question as to who is in control of online discourse and public debate.
In the past, if you wanted to reach a large audience, you had to get quoted in the Hartford Courant, for example, or interviewed on NBC News. And news organizations had an understanding of professional ethics and serving the public good, and also there were real consequences if they failed to uphold those principles. If you knowingly wrote something false in the Hartford Courant, you and the Hartford Courant could both be sued. That’s not the case for these companies.
It’s ironic that Trump is calling for the repeal of Section 230, which shields these companies from legal liability over what their users say or do. If Section 230 didn’t exist, Twitter would be liable for everything false he posted, and he never would have been allowed to use it in the first place.
On that note, what kinds of things can be done to address some of these problems in how the public discourse is shaped? Is repealing Section 230 actually a good idea?
If Section 230 were repealed, that would certainly change a lot of things about the way people use the Internet. I don’t know how likely that is, though. Maybe if we had responsible leadership at these social media companies that have become the de facto public square, who could change their algorithms so that they don’t favor the lowest common denominator in terms of content, that would improve things.
It’s important to say that social media can also be used for good. Look at the racial reckoning that’s happening right now in the US, and how many people are willing to stand up and march and make changes. The movement got traction on social media, and it was able to spread farther and faster than it would have been able to at any other time in the country’s history. That’s a good thing. But it works both ways. You can use social media to organize a peaceful march, and you can use it to plan a terrorist attack.
We’re living in a time of intense polarization and information distortion. Nobody wants to listen to each other. It’s becoming commonplace to speak in very coarse language and insult people you disagree with, and to see your opponents as almost less than human.
In addition to that, the whole information landscape is very fragmented now. No one’s working from the same set of facts. There’s so much spin. People are drawn to the outrage, not the straight story. I don’t know how we all come back together, and it’s scary to think about what that means for democracy.