States versus social networks

Social networking websites and apps aim to manage almost every aspect of your life, curtail your access to information and take responsibility for your safety. In this regard, they are replacing government authority with their own. But when it comes to a clash with states, can they win?

As some background, Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly said at this year's Valdai forum that social media companies had attempted to take on some form of state-like authority and displace the state itself in this regard, and that they had failed. The remarks are quoted by Russian broadcaster RT.

Unfortunately, the source linked by RT is a more than three hour-long video with an English translation in which Putin does not seem to make the alleged remarks, so it is hard to tell what exactly he meant.

If the RT quote was valid, Putin may have said large tech companies tried to assume some roles traditionally held by governments, and the attempts were "fleeting". He would have claimed, "in the US, the owners of these platforms were taken down a peg or two as it was in Europe as well," with some clarity added that this was due to "anti-monopolisation measures".

So, what did Putin mean?

Antitrust laws

The European Union currently has the Digital Markets Act (DMA) on the cards, which apparently will prevent a tech company from trapping users in an operating system or bundle of apps that solely favours its own services (and by extension news feeds) over any other firm's. It also apparently hopes to make sure users can uninstall pre-installed apps, which presumably means preventing US digital giants from forcing European users to use their apps and look at their news feeds.

Antitrust lawsuits have already targeted large tech companies in the US and Australia, with Amazon and Apple often being in focus. Facebook has also had a hard time in Australia, where the government sought for Facebook to pay news outlets for their content and Facebook attempted to push back against the government with help from Alphabet (who own Google), by carrying out a news blackout. Back at the start of the year, the push from Facebook failed to deter the Australian government and in fact other governments took Australia's side.

Subduing African governments?

Social media companies are uniquely confrontational towards governments, lately seeing themselves as authorities on par with some governments. Silicon Valley-based corporations like Twitter certainly see themselves as more reliable and legitimate authorities than African governments, as can be seen from their enforcement actions targeting government accounts in Uganda and Ethiopia.

Twitter's removal of government communications because they promoted violence is an attempt to de-recognise a state, because the monopoly on the legal use of violence is a defining aspect of a state. It is also an ineffective and failed usurpation of the state's responsibilities, since a state can still commit or allow violence whether Twitter deletes posts about it or not.

Victory over Trump?

Some might consider the banning of Trump to be a victory of social media over the US state, but in reality Trump was always an outsider to the US state and it was the US state that defeated Trump. The other branches of the US government certainly hated Trump, as did a majority of lawmakers. The spectre of these state figures cracking down after the evident electoral defeat of Trump was the factor most responsible for compelling organisations like Twitter and Facebook to kick Trump off social media.

The behaviour of social networks certainly suggests they have or had a willingness to compel governments to do their bidding, yet they have been ineffective. The actions of Twitter in Africa have simply resulted in bans targeting the website. Governments have shown they are willing and capable of pushing back against what are really just weak outfits. Social networks can be forcibly broken up due to laws, taken offline or bankrupted by fines at any moment the state truly loses patience with them.

States as continuous victors

Whether or not Putin was actually making comments like the above or sought to discuss the above developments, I do not know. However, the reported observation that social networks are losing their battle with states is valid. There have been plenty of times when new media, organisations and other actors created upheaval in the internal and international order, but they are ultimately crushed under the tank-treads of whoever wields the real power. At this moment, that still means nation-states.