Elon Musk is displayed next to Twitter's logo

In this photo illustration, the image of Elon Musk is displayed on a computer screen and the logo of twitter on a mobile phone in Ankara, Turkiye, on October 06, 2022.

(Image: Muhammed Selim Korkutata / Anadolu Agency)

How Twitter's Death Could Help Fascism Win in 2024

People forced to give up on truth amid a deluge of fake news are more easily manipulated by those with power.

First, some good news. I believe the Democrats’ chances in the 2024 US presidential election are decent, given both that abortion is likely to be front and center and that last week radical Republicans once again tried to shut down the federal government because they could not get their culture-warring priorities – specifically anti-trans attacks in this case – into a budget bill that could pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.

While a shutdown was ultimately averted, these petulant political fits don’t tend to work out well for Republicans – though it seems they just can’t quit them. As one frustrated Republican member of the House said last week: “We always get the blame.” Well, yes. That’s because literally every federal government shutdown in recent memory has been the GOP’s fault, as has all the resulting economic pain inflicted on federal employees and other workers who depend on federal funding.

On an individual level, power has absolutely destroyed the Twitter that people like myself once knew and depended on – remade by Elon Musk into something called ‘X’.

In this case, such economic pain is still looming; the stopgap bill agreed by Republican Kevin McCarthy only kicks the can down the road for 45 days, after which the more extreme members of his already extreme party may eventually manage to force a shutdown anyway. In the meantime, McCarthy’s deal with the Democrats who helped him pass his budget bill has cost him his speakership, becoming the first person in history to be removed from the role.

As for the other big topic in the presidential race, Republicans are obviously to blame for the end of a nationwide right to abortion in the United States. Thanks to the Christian Right’s power, the party gave us the president who appointed the Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade.

But while both factors are likely to help Democrats in November 2024, there is bad news as well, particularly around social media disinformation and manipulation, which played a powerful role in the 2016 election. Now, after a brief period in which activists and politicians forced Facebook and Twitter to take some steps to limit political disinformation, mitigating the harm that it causes, things have taken a rapid turn for the worse.

Remember when Western pundits were optimistic about the democratic potential of social media? While the significance of such platforms to the 2010-2011 revolutionary actions collectively dubbed the Arab Spring may have been exaggerated, there is no doubt that at the time, and for several years after, Twitter, in particular, was incredibly useful for social justice advocates, protesters, antifascists, activists, and those seeking to provide and receive news in real-time.

Cops with tear gas breaking up a protest? Twitter could help you navigate your way out of the situation. Active shooter event in progress? Twitter would likely have had information from firsthand observers before it showed up anywhere in the formal media. Want to know what’s happening at that neo-Nazi demonstration? Counter-protesters are uploading pictures and videos as things unfold.

Social media also provided ways for activists to organize to get out the vote, although as we now know, Facebook in particular was notoriously harvesting big data that would be weaponized to manipulate elections in favor of right-wingers.

Anti-democratic forces benefit from ‘post-truth politics’ because in the absence of truth, truth is defined by power

Authoritarian regimes certainly noticed the democratizing potential of social media in the early 2010s. Over time, they began to block access to Facebook and Twitter, crack down on users, and demand certain concessions regarding servers, searchable terms and user information from the usually US-based companies, which tended to capitulate. In 2014, the Kremlin also drove Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov out of the country when it essentially nationalized Vkontakte, a ‘Russian Facebook’, which Durov had allowed dissidents to use to organize protests against the Kremlin. He defended the practice on “free speech” grounds.

Powerful authoritarians in supposedly democratic Western countries also took notice of the democratic power inherent in social media, which they then reshaped to their own anti-democratic ends. Bad actors – such as those associated with the Brexit campaign in the UK and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy in the US – weaponized the big data that tech companies happily made available. The tech companies also allowed disinformation to proliferate on their platforms. The ensuing chaos, sowed in the name of ‘free speech’, has contributed to the spread of anti-vaccine and anti-mask attitudes, often antisemitic conspiracy theories, and manipulative material designed to produce political outrage.

What does all this accomplish for the billionaire tech CEOs and right-wing authoritarians who choose to unleash the trolls? To put it briefly, if people find themselves unable to sort through the deluge of bullshit in order to arrive at the truth, some will give up on truth, which allows them to be manipulated by those with power.

This process has been quite transparent in the US, where former Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway infamously coined the phrase “alternative facts” on national television, and Trump goon Rudy Giuliani, also on national TV, literally stated: “Truth isn’t truth.” Anti-democratic forces benefit from ‘post-truth politics’ because in the absence of truth, truth is defined by power.

On an individual level, power has absolutely destroyed the Twitter that people like myself once knew and depended on – remade by Elon Musk into something called ‘X’. I was an avid user of the site from 2015, and as I transitioned from an academic career to writing full-time for a living, it allowed me to reach a much wider audience than I otherwise would have and helped me connect with editors and get work. I’m not the only such journalist or commentator to be thrust into chaos by Twitter’s death, as Andrea Grimes explored in a moving article for DAME Magazine. But the bigger worry here is about far more than any one writer.

Twitter’s democratic potential is gone; X has only antidemocratic potential. Over time, this fact will turn the platform into a right-wing echo chamber with weakened direct influence over American civil society, but that process is protracted enough that X’s post-truth ethos could have a harmful impact on the 2024 American election. Facebook is losing relevance much more slowly than X, and its policies will likely also have a seriously harmful effect on our politics in this crucial period.

Government regulation of Big Tech is the best (and likely only) way to effectively counter this problem at scale. Such regulation will not be immediately forthcoming in the US, but Democrats must be aware of the problem as they strategize ahead of next November.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.