After Donald Trump publicly announced his COVID-19 diagnosis on October 2, social media had a field day with anticipatory comments suggesting the president’s death could be a net positive for society. Alas, given said comments, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok reiterated their policy on death threats, and users learned they can’t wish death on the president, whether it’s a casual hope that COVID-19 takes him or a more graphic imagining. Immediately, famous Democrats scrambled to show how well they can follow these newly imposed rules. Rachel Maddow, for instance, tweeted: “God bless the president and the first lady. If you pray, please pray for their speedy and complete recovery—and for everyone infected, everywhere.” It was a classic Democratic move; they adhere to the rules everyone has abandoned. Then, they act shocked when Republicans run circles around them, skipping civility in favor of their own agendas.
Now, Democrats have the chance to stop being controlled by the notion of civility. When it comes to social-media platforms changing the rules, specifically, Democrats are well-positioned to use soft power to pressure big tech into following its own policies. In doing so, they can point out the unequal care given to the sitting president. Death threats have never been allowed on these platforms, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they have been handled historically. Most users are told that a threat “doesn’t violate the terms of service,” even if it’s graphic or includes personal information. Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar had to publicly plead with Twitter in 2019 to ban her opponent after he threatened her. “If it is proven @IlhanMN passed sensitive info to Iran, she should be tried for #treason and hanged,” he tweeted.
Now she, like other members of the Squad, is questioning why Twitter and other social media sites suddenly care so much about enforcing their policies. Meanwhile, conservatives think they’re hard done by when it comes to the enforcement of rules. Big tech already decides who lives to post another day, using an army of underpaid “independent contractors” as moderators who have to swiftly thumbs up or thumbs down sometimes deeply disturbing media, including a lot of death threats. It also includes missing context cues, though, like not recognizing transmisogyny or racist dog whistles targeting a Black user. Moderating tech giants is such dismal work that it makes people ill, and content is moving at high speed past people who are tired, stressed, depressed, and frantic to power through their work. It’s easy to see why some death threats or other abuse doesn’t get flagged.
That’s the reason Democrats should be going hard at tech companies right now, especially when moderation has such an outsized impact on elections: One in five adults uses Twitter, for example, while 69 percent of people are on Facebook. Users are mired in a swamp of misinformation, disinformation, and sometimes well-meaning factual errors, not to mention harassment, threats, and abuse. However, establishment Democrats will bow to their soft, flavorless, gooey base with saccharine appeals to civility rather than doing the right thing—as they always do. Congress recently held hearings in which moderation practices were questioned alongside the larger power of tech companies. The president even wrote an effectively meaningless executive order targeting big tech and referencing complaints about free speech. Curiously, the same Republicans who complain about “censorship” are not rushing to the defense in this case, another reminder that conservatives stomp over rules without any further thought.
With Congressmembers sensibly avoiding COVID-19 by staying home and following public health advisories, it may take more effort for them to push tech companies to set clear, understandable policies and enforce them equally. But they could be working on legislation, holding remote hearings, talking to their constituents, and meeting with content moderation teams virtually. Constituents can provide critical information about what they experience and what tech companies can do to improve it. Obviously fighting for clear, consistent policies is important, but so is creating a logical reporting process. For example, sometimes there’s no appropriate category for an abusive post, especially when reporting posts that target other people. Some members of Congress have spoken out about the hypocrisy, but most are using social media to post dull Trump updates with proforma “get well soon” vibes. The most daring they get is a followup comment about following public health recommendations for wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands.
The time for civility is over. It was over a long time ago.
But what if Democrats went beyond the bare minimum of following the rules and being the picture of civility? What if they screencapped the death threats they receive and post them side-by-side with outcomes on their reporting? What if they let victims of targeted harassment take over their feeds for a day or posted brief videos of constituents who receive threatening material all the time with no meaningful action? What if they kicked tech companies while they were down? The Democratic Party is a vast, creaking apparatus that says it wants to take a stand in this moment, with many slick statements about Black Lives Matter, the coronavirus, and other issues. Instead of stating that something is good or bad, though, the party could leverage its deep connections to do something about it.
Politics is a major component of conversation on social media, so Democrats could respond to the frustration that many people are expressing right now and engage directly with people who are angry about tech companies not applying their policies evenly—and about the material impact it has on the everyday lives of people outside of politics. Highlighting this hypocrisy could energize younger voters, who are notoriously lackluster at turnout but are starting to vote in higher numbers. There’s now an opportunity for a moribund party slowly marching into oblivion to revive itself in a meaningful way that will immediately impact many constituents. Death threats, rape threats, and other abusive behavior have a suppressive effect on engagement, making it more difficult for people to take part in the discourse and, for that matter, The Discourse.
Pushing big tech to treat their moderators better and evenly enforce conduct expectations should have happened years ago, but now that we’re here, we might as well get to it. The time for civility is over. It was over a long time ago. It’s not a surprise that younger, less establishment politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Representative Rashia Tlaib have been leading the charge on pushing the conversation about threats and enforcement. They aren’t entrenched in the establishment, terrified of losing their jobs if they don’t keep “the base” or their donors happy. We don’t pay our representatives to be scared, hiding behind the apron strings of civility. We pay them to be bold—and that’s what this moment calls for. That said, I do hope the president chokes on a marshmallow and keels over in the horrendously redesigned Rose Garden.