Why Twitter and Facebook scare politicians in the US (and beyond)

Big Techs are an active part of electoral competitions and are not subject to rules and controls, so much so that they can change their decisions, even diametrically without suffering any consequences. The analysis by Andrea Monti, Professor of Law of Order and Public Security, University of Chieti-Pescara – Originally published in Italian by Formiche.net

The decision taken by Facebook and Twitter to block a controversial article published on 14 October 2020 by the New York Post about Robert Hunter Biden, son of US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, caused a political earthquake. The Republican Party used this episode to denounce a direct alteration of the election campaign and reinforce the fiction that there is a prejudice of Big Tech against this political party; this perception further reinforced by Twitter, which after a few days changed its mind – or better, policy- and granted the free circulation of the column.

At the same time, there has been no lack of comments from those who have seen in this story the umpteenth demonstration of the power that Big Tech can exercise over every area of citizens’ private and public life, politicians and institutions. Not only, therefore, hidden attempts to manipulate electoral consensus by spin doctors as in the Cambridge Analytica case, but also direct intervention on the circulation of information, at the cost of sacrificing press freedom.

Has Twitter violated the law?

On closer inspection, however, the behaviour of Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms is neither illegal, new, nor scandalous.

At least apparently.

As Kaitlin Tiffany remarked on The Atlantic,

To be clear, Twitter is a company, not a government, and as such, it has every right to “censor” whatever it wants. There is no debate that the platform is legally allowed to block any URL it likes, and it often does: It has an incentive and some obligation to protect its users from malware, spam, illegal content, and so on. All major social platforms do some amount of link-blocking.

Moreover, except for sensational cases such as Napalm Girl (the photograph of a Vietnam war victim first qualified as pornography by Facebook and then “rehabilitated”) hardly anyone has protested about the routine “content control” activity carried out against anonymous users. This latter can do nothing against technological giants and must suffer, rightly or wrongly, the demonetization or deletion of what they publish.

Big Tech and traditional media

To this could also be added that traditional politically aligned media do nothing different when they decide not to broadcast news, or to do so in an instrumental way. An example is the case mentioned in this article. This is how The New York Times (sub)headlines the Twitter decision’s reversal on the incriminating article:

Twitter Changes Course After Republicans Claim’ Election Interference’

It had blocked an unsubstantiated New York Post article about the Bidens but said late Thursday that it would allow similar content to be shared.

As is easy to see, in the main headline (Twitter changes its mind) is grafted a value judgment on the New York Post’s article, qualified as “devoid of elements”. Strictly speaking, this comment could be considered irrelevant in a relationship with the merits of the story. However, the very fact of this choice highlights the newspaper’s desire to send a message to readers such as: “Twitter may be wrong, but the news about Biden is ungrounded”.

So why, in the case of the press and television, does the widespread practice of distorting or suppressing ad usum delphini information and news no longer generate scandal, while when social networking platforms are involved, reactions are quite different?

Why does Big Tech frighten politicians?

The answer is complicated and involves, first of all, the mechanisms of consensus creation that have shown all their effectiveness in the phenomenon of fake news, favoured by the loss of the centrality of traditional information.

Individual opinions are no longer determined by television’s talking heads or newspaper columnists but by tribal dynamics that trigger a confirmation bias within more or less numerous groups of “peers”. Moreover, unlike traditional media, messages, or stories generate word of mouth practically in real-time among the various social groups. The result of these two vectors is that consciences (at least a certain kind of consciences) can be manipulated much more efficiently by a tweet than by a sophisticatedly disinformative newspaper article.

From this perspective, therefore, Big Tech have an effective power to alter the exercise of political rights and not only freedom of expression or thought because they can obtain substantially immediate results, even though they are not newspapers or components of the professional information world.

As simple “service providers” Big Tech do not produce content and do not favour its circulation because the burdens are upon the user’s side. At least that is what they have always said, every time some court or institution tries to make them liable for what circulates on their platforms. Facts like the New York Post’s article block, however, show that things are different.

Big Tech are an active part of electoral competitions and are not subject to rules and controls. This is so true that they can even change their decisions diametrically without suffering any consequences. Moreover, they can do it faster than it would take a judge to examine and judge their behaviour.

What frightens politicians, therefore, is the loss of control over public opinion caused by people who run platforms with the sole (more than legitimate) purpose of producing profits and who, therefore, do not have a political agenda shared with those who are (or want) to represent the people (or have an interest in crippling their competitors).


The relationship between politics and Big Tech is another element of the complex issue that goes under the name of “technological public order” and which sees information technology multinationals no longer as “simple” suppliers of hardware and software for the public administration. They have become entities who, first only de facto and now also de jure, exercise, as in a duumvirate, real powers of control over the political life of a country.

The issue of shared power between (foreign) private individuals and public institutions, accentuated by changes in geopolitical scenarios and the still incalculable effects of the pandemic, is the topic of the months and years to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *