If you feel like our leaders are too online, you are not alone. Some of the biggest, most important government announcements these days are released via social media; lawmakers who’ve trolled their way to power can’t stop spreading disinformation online even after assuming office; and the art of the politician clapback tends to dominate the headlines above and beyond actual public policy. That’s without even talking about how the former president and his enablers incited an insurrection by steadily cultivating a cult of online disinformation.
Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, has a radical idea to combat lawmakers’ online provocations: Just shut them down—all of them. In Grygiel’s view, the current setup has given free rein to propaganda and exploitation. People in power easily skirt the free press without being fact-checked and held accountable for their remarks. The only solution, in their view, is to deplatform government officials and public agencies, from small-town mayors and police departments all the way to the Oval Office. The benefits could be huge — misinformation went down 73% across social media a week after President Trump was barred from Twitter and a number of other platforms.
But what would a world where lawmakers can’t fire off posts actually look like?
GEN: You are a big proponent of banning politicians, government officials, and public agencies from having access to social media. What led you to that conclusion?
Jennifer Grygiel: It started when police departments were sharing mugshots on Facebook. The public was coming in and publicly shaming people. I saw a police department in Fredonia, New York, threaten students because they didn’t want them out partying. They said they were all going to wear body cameras and that their future employers might see them on Facebook.
It becomes a form of social control and manipulation when these entities have power over you. They didn’t have this power before. But now they do because they can livestream and they can do all kinds of things. They can build an audience. The media is powerful, and so it can be abused.
The use-case I often point people to is Bangor, Maine. Like you would think up in rural Bangor, Maine, that there wouldn’t be much happening. Well, the police department up there has one of the largest audiences in the country because they started memeing. Sure, people like a police dog and a funny joke or whatever, but it is being used to build the audience. Once they have the audience, maybe they’re tweeting police dogs and cops playing basketball. That helps with their public relations; they want people to like them and trust them, but what happens when then something happens with an arrest? Or maybe there’s police abuse, or someone is shot and killed — then they try to control the narrative instead of holding the officer accountable.
During the Trump era, there was a celebritization of the office. There weren’t really any rules or regulations or conversations about what are the implications of the president tweeting. We have to go back to the basics and start to raise awareness around the propagandization effect of someone who is in office being able to reach a large base of the public in their country.
Shouldn’t governments be able to communicate with people where they are?
I’m all for having the government be able to communicate with us. It’s called the government speech doctrine. The government has the right to talk — to state its position and its policies — and to govern, sure. The government does not have the right to propagandize and to steer public opinion in a way that is so influential that it doesn’t allow people to have freedom of thought and freedom of information. That is when it truly becomes propaganda. If the media becomes eclipsed by the government and the free press is not able to function or hold them accountable, then we’re all in trouble. I think we’re hitting a tipping point where we’re starting to see that.
Why do you believe that has happened?
Part of it is because the platforms have provided these mass communications tools directly to the government, to police departments, to elected members of Congress. They’ve distributed them without any real responsibility for fact-checking them or holding them accountable, like making sure that the president of the United States does not place fraudulent ads during his own presidential race. That is the conflict.
There’s not a lot of accountability on these platforms. The government has seized on that, unfortunately. The narratives have become upside down, with platforms essentially saying that now they’re here to help you because there’s no media outlets left. It’s not good. It’s really not good.
Unfortunately, powerful governments don’t always serve their people. I wish they did, but they don’t. That’s why we need this balance. A balance of power. The free press isn’t enshrined into the branches of government officially. But if there is no free press to hold state power to account, then it’s going to get ugly real fast.
In your view, how is government propaganda taking shape online?
Back in the day, if the president wanted to communicate something with the public, they had to essentially have a working relationship with the press. What we saw during the Trump era was that outlets started to cut away from speeches at times because of some of the outright lies that the president was sharing. That shows the role that the media plays in fact-checking — but also gatekeeping and making sure that their platforms aren’t being abused, that they’re providing a service to their readers — and that they have a professional role too, asking questions.
That’s one reason why we saw President Trump not hold a press conference for so long — he didn’t need to. The president had amassed such a large following and audience that he disclosed it was his outright intent to circumvent the press. He had essentially a propaganda channel coming out of the White House. That is a direct threat to democracy.
We need to have more conversations about that because nothing has changed. The current administration could begin to use social media in the same way and future ones could. What we need is for our lawmakers to evaluate that and make sure that public opinion isn’t shaped by the sitting administration free of any challenge from the media or the free press, and to really look at propaganda effects.
A devil’s advocate would say, “Trump was an outlier, the worst-case scenario. People like Biden and other lawmakers are not really doing propaganda.” How do you respond to that point of view?
All governments lie. This is literally the check that the free press plays as the fourth estate, especially here in the United States. It’s fundamental to at least American democracy.
One of the reasons why propaganda is risky and why you don’t want your federal government doing it is because the federal government’s pockets are deep. The federal government is able to use your own taxes to propagandize you, potentially. And then that becomes essentially a feedback loop. If they’re able to extend more of your tax money on propaganda to stir public opinion, then they are able to essentially take control of your government. Before you know it, you’re no longer a free people.
You have to look at the facts too. The government buys Twitter ads and pays for these types of sponsored posts that may compete with the domestic free press. The CDC was also used under President Trump and politicized. We like to think that our government is trying to help us during a pandemic, but at times it was being influenced. Then the communications coming out of the CDC’s social media could have been influenced. It’s things like that.
Platforms are sometimes promoting some of these federal channels, and what looks, at face value, to be good, official, trusted sources. Let me tell you, as a journalism person, people know that official sources are official sources. They need to be vetted. They need to be fact-checked. They need to be followed up on. You need to make sure that what they said is true, accurate, and not about political influence.
Again, these platforms — Twitter, Facebook, and others — even during the pandemic have been promoting essentially government programs. Boosting the CDC page, boosting the CDC’s message without presenting the free press alongside that to make sure that what the CDC is saying actually is in the best interest of the people.
What sort of regulations should be put in place to address these issues?
For Twitter, I’ve called for the pre-moderation of world leaders to make sure that their accounts aren’t hacked. Some other things that can be done are: Maybe the president has a Twitter handle, but it’s not allowed to grow an audience, and it certainly isn’t allowed to be promoted algorithmically by Twitter, which is, again, a conflict and can be influenced. What essentially happens is it moves it back into that 1.0 world of the web, where they have a presence on a platform, but they certainly aren’t allowed to grow to the size of CNN.
It’s not just the president’s handle. It is every single federal agency to a Cabinet member. There is a federal network of social media accounts in this country that cross-promote each other and distribute information. It is a federal propaganda network on social media and it needs to be called that and it needs to be addressed.
Recently — in the last year — Twitter introduced these warning labels, which is good because there needs to be more transparency. But they’ve given exemptions to entities like Voice of America, which we know now had a firewall breach under CEO Michael Pack, who was appointed by Trump. It shows how the government-owned pages were exempted and received a pass, even though they didn’t meet the platforms’ own rules of independence. That’s yet another sign of how it can be abused.
If the Democratic Party really wanted to serve people right now, they would make sure that the free press was on track to be strengthened. It’s been under attack for many years. But I’m telling you, I’m not seeing it, even with President Biden. He was very concerned about losing the @POTUS followers on Twitter after Trump was pulled out. I was like, “Good. Wipe it out. Don’t even turn it back on. People want to see what Biden’s doing, they can go search for it and go look at it.” You don’t need to have it pumped into your timeline. That’s the risk, especially if you’re getting more presidential tweets pumped into your timeline than tweets that you’re seeing from the free press.
I think a main point of tension is that a lot of people distrust the press. Not only because President Trump and other lawmakers have spent years attacking it, but also because media outlets have failed a lot of communities over the years. People might like hearing from their lawmakers directly because they don’t trust journalists. How do we come to terms with that?
The free press is this kind of mythical thing. It’s under a lot of financial pressure. There’s been a lot of consolidation, a lot of layoffs, unfortunately. For example, a lot of people may follow a local police department’s Twitter now instead of a local newspaper because there isn’t even one in their town.
There’s a lot of issues I would say with the health of the free press, which is not going to be made better by more government propaganda trying to fill that gap. People still want to know like, was there a crime in my area? But let me tell you, you don’t want to get it directly from the police because what if the police chief doesn’t like somebody in town?
It’s not like the free press also doesn’t get it wrong sometimes. If there is mistrust, you’ve got to go out and try and seek more sources. There’s an incredible amount of responsibility that comes with getting information directly from a government official or an official institution, like a police department or a senator. You have to then do the job of the journalist.
A journalist doesn’t trust, a journalist goes and asks other parties. A journalist goes and digs in an archive. A journalist goes and is not a stenographer, does not say what the government said, they follow up with questions. What you want is a diversity of sources representing lots of different voices, minority voices, key voices in local news, for example. What happens is, if the public is following a government official, there’s a breakdown in that responsibility. If you’re following a government official, you should go out and then follow up yourself. Who has the time to do that? We don’t all have time to be journalists.
Sometimes stuff gets posted on Twitter and it could be fabricated. But until it passes through the hands of a journalist who’s trained and authenticates it, it’s essentially a raw news item. It has not been processed. There is risk in that, consuming that as a member of the public because you don’t know its provenance, you don’t know the background, you don’t know the context. You don’t even know if it happened that year.
We need more immediate training for the public, but we also need to see the free press strengthened. People want independent, trusted journalism, and I think that ultimately there’s still a want for that and a recognition that’s serving you. But there’s also a lot of promotion by platforms in the idea that the government can be trusted.
I’m telling you, it’s a bad idea. It’s not going to serve the public ultimately.
I wish that the government would stop promoting themselves in this regard. I wish they would stop promoting their own federal entities in the way that they’re doing and return to more of a traditional collaboration with the free press, with publications to place their advertisements that way, instead of brokering it through platforms that are boosting them without that important relationship with actual journalists.
Culturally we think that everybody tweets, but when the government is tweeting, we have to pause and say, “Wait a second. Maybe that’s not a great idea and not actually serving democracy or the public or public safety.” We need to think about what the implications really are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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