Yesterday, egged on by outgoing President Donald Trump in person and via social media, a group of armed Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol as Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Amidst chaotic scenes, one woman died of a gunshot wound and three others from undisclosed medical emergencies, Congress was forced to evacuate to secure locations, and far-right figures were photographed briefly occupying the Senate chamber, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and other supposedly secure locations. But the occupation was eventually cleared by the Capitol Police and DC National Guard, Congress returned, and a day which began with the Democrats winning effective control of the Senate ended with the final certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.
The smoke has not yet cleared, and the implications of what happened yesterday — the first forcible occupation of the Capitol since 1814 — will no doubt reverberate for years to come. But one key element of understanding what happened yesterday was the interface between the president, his supporters in the Capitol and the rest of the world watching, all mediated by social media.
Trump had encouraged his supporters to come to Washington and protest the certification, and in the morning he addressed the gathered crowd, listing his grievances about the election and suggesting — falsely, in the event — that he would accompany them to the Capitol. Once the mob had breached the barriers and entered the Capitol complex, Trump tweeted a call for calm, but like many of his responses to violence committed by the far-right, the de-escalatory rhetoric was perfunctory and leavened with asides suggesting that he supported them.
Twitter, stepping up its standard approach with Trump’s tweets slightly, disabled sharing and commenting on the tweet, and eventually pulled it down entirely. Trump followed up with a video in the same vein: Telling protestors to “go home” but also saying “we love you.” Facebook pulled down the video, and shortly afterward both Twitter and Facebook temporarily disabled Trump’s account, with Twitter releasing a statement that any further violations of their terms of service by the president would result in a permanent ban. (At the time of publication, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has announced that Trump will be banned indefinitely from using his platform, “and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”)
The president’s Twitter feed has been the subject of both endless jokes and serious concerns for the duration of his presidency, since he frequently makes surprise policy and personnel announcements via tweets. But with serious questions swirling around the chain of command and the possible invocation of the 25th Amendment, which would enable Vice President Mike Pence to take over as acting president until Joe Biden is inaugurated, those questions have taken on new urgency and highlights the degree to which technology companies have become inherent to both domestic and international security architecture, and without much in the way of oversight or public buy-in.
As the power of nebulized social media has grown relative to traditionally structured legacy media, it has become hotly contested territory. The last few years have seen numerous attempts to use social media to push desired narratives or outcomes in foreign societies — some notably more successful than others. Despite this, tech companies have responded slowly, cautiously and generally only when pushed by regulators or the overwhelming force of public opinion. It is a legitimately complex area, especially given that most of the biggest tech firms are headquartered in the U.S., a country whose legal perspective on freedom of speech is an outlier even amongst democracies.
But by the same token, tech companies are victims of their own success. They — reasonably enough — do not want to be responsible for regulating free expression. But by successfully consolidating the means by which communication at all scales is conducted, especially during an extended pandemic which has sharply limited normal social gatherings, they have made themselves essential. But that essentialness has not been accompanied by any greater mechanism of public accountability or buy-in. Absent that, the responsibility for making decisions about, say, when a public figure is using the platform to incite violence will continue to be made on an inconsistent and ad-hoc basis by executives answerable to shareholders rather than citizens.
And this is only one of a number of areas where tech companies are simply too large to extricate themselves from broader questions of national interest and security. From the production of hardware and software with military applications to the provision of the network backbones of critical national infrastructure to the use of Internet of Things devices for both commercial and security purposes, we are rapidly entering a world where the security architecture of everyday life is built not by theoretically accountable government agencies but by an impromptu collection of corporations with occasional and inconsistent oversight.
There are any number of immediate issues that need to be addressed in the wake of the short-lived Capitol takeover, and which should stand as a warning well beyond Washington, D.C. But the extent to which the governance of communications and information in a crisis is in hands not answerable to the citizenry should not be lost in the shuffle.