Media and social media platforms finally begin to embrace their roles as democratic gatekeepers

During the 2020 election, media outlets and social media platforms assumed roles as “democratic gatekeepers.” In Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s influential book, How Democracies Die, they discuss the crucial role of institutions such as parties in keeping anti-democratic leaders from power. But parties, courts, etc. are not solely responsible. Media institutions have an important role. Kirsten Adams developed the concept of “civil gatekeepers” to analyze journalists’ roles to communicate “ideas about what is (and is not)” democratic to the public – a role journalism institutions largely failed to live up to in 2016.

In 2020, haltingly, unevenly, but unmistakably, journalistic organizations and social media platforms became democratic gatekeepers. Journalists asserted their foremost democratic commitment to the public through coverage that cast President Trump as anti-democratic. Social media platforms for the first time affirmed their role in protecting democratic institutions through regulatory policies and enforcement actions on presidential speech, and more broadly on electoral disinformation.

This was new. In 2016, the Republican Party was beset with an avowedly anti-democratic candidate in Donald Trump and failed to keep him from political power. Media institutions, from journalism outlets to social media platforms, also failed to fulfill their democratic gatekeeping role. As Adams showed, rather than acknowledge and guard against Trump’s anti-democratic speech and actions, journalists turned to moral equivalence to preserve partisan balance. Platforms, too, failed to anticipate how their systems could be subverted to undermine the very democratic institutions necessary for their existence, such as allowing Trump to engage in a social media campaign to discredit Barack Obama’s birthplace, citizenship, and legitimacy as president, dating from 2011 (when Obama was on the ballot) to 2014 (when Trump was planning to be) .

Journalists have long grounded their legitimacy in concepts such as balance and objectivity. Platforms, meanwhile, have generally grounded theirs in free expression. Neither journalists nor social media platforms have historically grounded their normative vision and legitimacy in terms of what explicitly promotes and protects democracy. Between the 2016 and the 2020 elections, slowly and haltingly, legacy journalists became more adept at covering the president, including adopting fact-checking and asserting their moral authority to protect democratic institutions and norms. This was on display during the period of early voting, Election Day, and the days after – where there was generally clear repudiation of the president’s many false, anti-democratic claims. Even Fox News checked the president on democratic grounds, condemning both premature assertions of victory and attempts to de-legitimize the vote count.

Platforms have faced similar challenges. How do they prevent election disinformation when it comes from the highest level of political office, aided and abetted by ruling party media such as Fox News and given legitimacy, validation, and amplification by Republican Party elites? The answer – up until recently – was not well. After all, it was just over a year ago that Facebook’s CEO, in response to growing public pressure to prevent politicians from lying on Facebook and criticisms of poor enforcement of existing rules against hate speech, embraced the notion of the platform being guided by “free speech” values. This “free speech” orientation subsequently proved unworkable as numerous crises demonstrated disinformation was causing imminent harm during the pandemic and 2020 presidential election.

During these conflicts, Facebook reversed course many times – but in general moved toward a more robust defense of democratic institutions. Facebook, and its counterparts, implemented more stringent policies against electoral disinformation, began enforcing policies on elected officials through labeling dubious claims and, in some instances, taking down content, and even went so far as to ban new paid political advertising entirely (Twitter) or in the week before and after the election (Facebook) to prevent disinformation and premature declarations of victory.

While some of these policies were counterproductive and did not go nearly far enough, and there was significant variation among platforms with respect to the actions they took, their underlying logic was unmistakable. Platforms generally expanded their conception of themselves as communicative institutions that have a responsibility to defend democratic processes. Election night bore this out – as the president posted unfounded allegations about a fraudulent election and claimed a lead, Twitter labeled these tweets, obscuring their content, and prevented liking and retweeting. Meanwhile, Facebook added a disclaimer to presidential posts about the vote count process and applied links to its voting information center. While these are limited actions – they are actions that have the clear normative stance of protecting democracy.

Assertive press and platforms willing to defend the public’s right to hold its leaders accountable at the ballot box and beyond it is an important, and overdue, development. While they cannot fully solve the vast political problems facing America, especially the growing counter-majoritarianism and illiberalism of a major political party, they are buying us time. And, as foremost a political problem, securing democracy is not something these institutions can do on their own – but the public needs them to try.