Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Disinformation, Democracy, and New Levers of Power



Amplifying politicians with large followings, on platforms with vast reach

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

On February 12, on Twitter, President Trump congratulated the United States’ Attorney General for “taking charge of a case that … perhaps should not have even been brought,” and told his 72.4 million followers, “Even Bob Muller lied to Congress!” The case at issue was the prosecution of Roger Stone, which had already concluded with a conviction for multiple felonies. Reporting on the tweet, The Hill noted that the president’s claim about Muller, the former special counsel, was offered “without evidence.”

Disinformation saturates our current digital conversations, and it is being spread and amplified by politicians with large followings, on platforms with vast reach.

In the face of this direct threat to civic engagement and democracy, the platforms on which the misinformation-and-disinformation-laden messaging by politicians is taking place argue that they are taking a principled stand in allowing that to continue—that they are being neutral, and helping us learn more about those politicians. Twitter will allow politicians (including President Trump) to post things that it would take down had others posted them, arguing that such posts are “newsworthy” when they come from politicians. Facebook has stated explicitly that it will not take down content posted by politicians (whether in ads or in other posts), even if it is disinformation.

Last November, the Center for Responsive Politics noted that “[p]residential candidates have spent $105 million on digital ads since big tech platforms and social media giants started tracking them [in 2018]. Of that total, more than $67 million has been spent on Facebook while $32 million went to Google.” The numbers, of course, have gone up significantly since then.

In mid-November, Twitter announced that it will stop running political ads. Facebook and Google continue to run them.

Unlike Facebook, which explicitly applies a different standards to politicians, Google has argued that it applies “the same ads policies to everyone…. It’s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim—whether it's a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died.” It added, however, “we expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited—but we will continue to do so for clear violations.”

A very limited response to “clear violations” is not enough to address the very widespread, diffuse problem that we are facing.

Although it has stopped accepting political ads, Twitter continues to play a key role in this epistemic environmental catastrophe. As researchers Yochai Benkler, Robert Farris, and Hal Roberts have pointed out, President Trump, in particular, “not only uses Twitter to communicate with his followers, but also uses Twitter as a means of exerting power—over the media, the executive branch, the legislature, or opponents.” In fact, they add, “the easy availability of a mass media outlet in the palm of his hand, at all hours of the day, has given the president a new and highly unorthodox lever of power.”

In fact, all of the digital platforms have given new levers of power to all politicians. Some might argue that they have also provided individual citizens new levers with which to oppose the politicians—but those levers are not equal. Sure, individuals can tweet at Trump, too, but they will sound more like the citizens of Dr. Seuss’ Whoville screaming “We are here!”

Through their policies (which are also new levers of power), the major digital platforms are adding to the power of the already powerful. Their denials of that reality are simply more disinformation.

Photo by mac jordan, cropped, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Feb 21, 2020

Subscribe to Our Blogs

* indicates required
Subscribe me to the following blogs: