• Stavros Papagianneas

The Looting of Democracy


On Wednesday 6 January 2021, the entire planet was astonished as armed supporters of US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington to stop lawmakers from confirming president-elect Joe Biden's electoral win - a usually ceremonial event.


The violent mob loyal to Donald Trump was earlier urged by the President - during a rally - to go to the Capitol. Had this being happened in Chili, Thailand or Haiti, it would be called an attempted coup. Following a particularly horrific year of anti-Black police brutality, the scene was staggering as the police did little to discourage the violent action.


A few days earlier, the Washington Post released Trump's recorded call with Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, where former pressured the later to "find him 11,780 votes" in order to overturn the election results in Georgia.


President Trump’s refusal to concede to his successful challenger is "giving great comfort" to "authoritarian regimes" around the world, said Joe Biden’s biographer on CNN. Trump's actions are a blow to the integrity of US democracy and democracy in general. It will have geopolitical implications on liberal democracies worldwide, especially in Europe, with the rise of alt-right movements and similar despots in Hungary and Poland.


Many questions arise. How would the US ask authoritarian countries to respect human rights when they are not even in the position to defend their prominent institutions properly? Will the US be able to tell the world that they are the paragon of democracy ever again?


Democracy is not just about institutions. It is about political culture, too. All democratic countries need to constantly defend it. The reputation damage is gigantic, not only for the US but for the entire West!


Today’s despotic societies are not fully formed dictatorships. They manufacture enemies and crises and extend political instability, keeping citizens in a situation of stress and trauma till they are exhausted and loose interest - while ensuring that autocrats can act with impunity.


The siege of the iconic Congress building is the result of the irresponsible, extreme and violent far-right populism of the American president. It is the result of lies, state disinformation and strategic propaganda reproduced by certain media and social media platforms. Also, his party which let things get so far is blameworthy. Today, the "big democracy" looks like a Third World democracy.


In Europe, most leaders expressed shock and dismay while seeing the chaos in Washington.


"What happened today in Washington, D.C., is not America," French President Emmanuel Macron said in a video message on Twitter late Wednesday. "We believe in the strength of our democracies. We believe in the strength of American democracy."


Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo condemned the violent riots at the Capitol building and expressed his support to Joe Biden. "Shock and disbelief at ongoing events at the US Capitol, symbol of American democracy. We trust the strong institutions of the United States will overcome this challenging moment. Full support to President-elect Joe Biden", he twitted.


Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, urged the Trump supporters to "stop trampling" on democratic values. "The enemies of democracy will be pleased to see these incredible images from Washington, D.C.," he added.


European Union officials indicated their support for Biden as well.


"I believe in the strength of US institutions and democracy. A peaceful transition of power is at the core. Joe Biden won the election," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter.


EU Council President Charles Michel described the U.S. Congress as “a temple of democracy" and said "We trust the US to ensure a peaceful transfer of power" to Biden.


However, the most horrifying thing in the Washington attacks is not how easily Trump's far-right supporters walked to the Capitol despite openly stating that they wanted to prevent Biden from taking power and to eliminate those who "stole" the election - an election that the actual president has lost with a difference of seven million votes.


The "indignation" expressed by the bewitched mob doped by Trump's rhetoric in the corridors of the Capitol is the birth of American fascism, which has been in the making for many years now. Like all fascist movements, it presupposes a reference to a leader - in this case, Trump. Nevertheless, it will not disappear when he will leave Washington - and this is the scariest thing. We are watching something that has deeper roots than Trump himself.


Even terrifying is the passivity of social media platforms during the four years of his presidency. They only waited until the US institutions' attack to take some measures against the spread of extreme hate speech and racism via their channels. In the aftermath of the Washington events, key opinion leaders around the world condemned Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube for failing to stop the flood of extremist and dangerous content from Donald Trump and his supporters that fueled the violence at the Capitol Hill. Five people died during the siege, including a police officer.


Finally, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram locked Donald Trump's accounts temporarily after posts with policy "violations" & widespread condemnation. Twitter locked the account for 12 hours and Facebook for 24 hours. Then, Facebook and Instagram banned Trump's account from posting for at least the remainder of his term in office and perhaps "indefinitely, said Zuckerberg on a blog post.


On Friday 8 January, Twitter has also suspended President Trump from its platform."After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence," Twitter said.


YouTube said on 12 January it’s suspending Trump’s channel for at least one week for violating the company's policies. A recent video on Trump's channel had incited violence, YouTube told CNN Business. That video has now been removed. YouTube declined to share details of the video that earned Trump the strike, but said that after the one-week timeout, it will revisit the decision


In doing so, social media platforms have recognised their responsibility to prevent the spread of illegal and violent viral content. The Trump Twitter ban and Facebook’s belated clampdown finally settles it: social media platforms should be seen as publishers, with all the responsibilities that come along with that privilege.


They can no longer hide their duty towards society by arguing that they only provide hosting services. The Capitol Hill siege exposes the fragility of our democracies and the threat tech companies can pose to their survival. There is an urgent need for regulation, not only in Europe but also in the US and the rest of the world.


And as Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for the internal market writes in Politico (10 JAN 2021):


"Just as 9/11 marked a paradigm shift for global security, 20 years later, we are witnessing a before-and-after in the role of digital platforms in our democracy."


Like in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, elites are responsible for the evolution we experience. American elites accepted to be represented by a racist. Trump would not have risen to power, nor would he have survived without the consent of powerful media owners, criminal strategists and big financial interests. He survived thanks to tax cuts, the support of a party which is in free fall and, the revocation of popular health, labour and environmental policies.


However, the US are not alone. From Bolsonaro in Brazil to Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir and the Ayatollahs of Persia, for 20 years our liberal democracies are under siege. A mixture of critical, extreme conservative, anti-systemic, and far-right movements has emerged, challenging the basic principles of liberal democracies.


Till now, the West failed in stopping this despicable transformation of our liberal world - which has been formed between 1945 and 1991 - to illiberal societies. Brexit and Trump are children of the same mother. The creation of an international fascist movement that Trump tried to design with Steve Bannon, has failed for now, but the pirates are still out there awaiting for the next opportunity to looting democracy.


Liberal democracies in Europe, America and the rest of the world should take measures to tackle this global threat and act fast. They should start by issuing strong legislation for the use and content on the large social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc. They should begin by making policies beneficial for all citizens and saving our planet from climate change and, providing affordable health care and education for all.


Also, the attempted coup at the Capitol needs to be brands' wake-up call about funding online disinformation. Disinformation and other forms of manipulative, antidemocratic communication have emerged as a problem for Internet policy. Ad-funded disinformation has been made possible by companies as they don't know where their digital ads on Facebook, YouTube or other sites are running. One solution could be to cut down on the number of sites on which they advertise, making it possible to be more vigilant. Companies need to be aware that they are responsible for where their logo shows up and what their ad budgets fund.


This is not more about freedom of speech, political marketing or entertainment. When you send people to belittle, attack or kill other people; when you say that some of us are here to steal your job and encourage hate - this has nothing to do with free speech, it is called a crime. It is paramount for our planet to respect the rule of law and political equality. This is about the survival of our civic freedoms, our values and our democracies. We must create order in the chaos outside before it comes inside our house.

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