On Thursday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was outraged that his fellow populist to the north was silenced by Twitter, Facebook, and plenty of other online platforms. In his opinion, it is an affront to freedom of expression, a blatant act of censorship. During one of his trademark daily press conferences , he said of Trump’s de-platforming: “How can a company act as if it were all-powerful, omnipotent, as a kind of Spanish Inquisition about what is expressed? … Since those decisions were made, the Statue of Liberty in New York is turning green with rage, because it does not want to become an empty symbol.”
“Yes,” AMLO conceded, “social media should not be used to incite violence and all that, but this cannot be used as an excuse to suspend freedom of expression.” He even ordered his government to start building a social network that will ensure full exercise of freedom of expression and also indicated that he would raise the issue of internet platform censorship at the next meeting of G-20 leaders. It is striking, however, that these strong assertions by the president have not been accompanied, at least so far, by any talk of new regulations for platforms’ behavior in Mexico.
An easy reading, typical of the Mexican public debate, is to interpret these statements as substantive expressions of support for President Trump. Despite the U.S. president’s frequent rhetorical and policy attacks aimed at Mexico, the two men share a nationalistic, populist disdain of elites, including media elites. But it might be more accurate to see in López Obrador’s solidarity with the canceled Trump a pre-emptive warning against these private and foreign moderators of online expression. It’s a thinly veiled message of “Don’t you dare. Not in my country.”
It is easy to overstate the global significance and precedent-setting importance of the online platforms’ moves against Trump. The president was days away from leaving office, after all, and did incite his supporters to take over the Capitol while Congress was validating the presidential election. Trump’s messaging on social media, moreover, has been offensive and provocative throughout his four years as president. It is also worth noting that the social media accounts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are still active despite the fact that his government has taken severe measures against dissent in his country. Likewise, the Facebook account of Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, has not even been temporarily suspended, although he has frequently used it to attack journalists and drug users. In the Western Hemisphere, we could probably count anywhere from a handful to close to a dozen leaders whose presence on social media might be jeopardized if these platforms applied the same standards globally they applied in the U.S.
That is AMLO’s fear. The idea that anyone—let alone foreign and private companies—could come between him and his people is completely anathema to his worldview. And he and his allies know how important these platforms are to their success: López Obrador’s own electoral victory in July 2018, an unprecedented landslide in the years since Mexican democracy opened up to true competition between independent parties, was fueled in part by a very clever social media campaign and organization. Through quirky, low-budget, and folksy videos and memes, AMLO and his Morena movement showed a genuine touch of improvisation that highlighted his empathy with the most disadvantaged social classes. López Obrador took advantage of social networks like no other candidate in the country’s history. In the speech he gave on the night of his triumph, he made explicit the social networks’ importance in his victory, calling them “blessed.” As president, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have continued to be extremely useful for his government’s message and the mobilization of its ardent base of supporters. His press office adeptly deploys social networks to amplify his daily press conferences, post topics of interest to him, respond to objections, revile critics, and even orchestrate coordinated attacks against those who disagree with the government.
Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms now face a real conundrum as they consider what the Trump precedent might mean for their global businesses. Pulling the plug on an elected president was a highly controversial move even within the United States. We know, for instance, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had favored exempting Trump’s tweets from a strict application of company standards on the grounds that tweets from a head of state are owed deference and inherently “newsworthy.” Any decision to pull the plug on leaders in more authoritarian countries that lack any tradition of private entities regulating speech will prove far more controversial. Mere speculation that U.S.-based platforms might throw off foreign leaders could imperil these platforms’ business prospects in those same jurisdictions. (Moving against a U.S. president, remember, didn’t involve the same fraught issue of “sovereignty” that a similar move in Mexico or India might carry.)
This all suggests companies might have to surrender perfect consistency in making decisions regarding which expressions can circulate online (at least when it comes to leading political figures) and an embrace of some case-by-case arbitrariness. Companies will have to balance their online communities’ needs with their need to maintain healthy relationships with a large number of foreign governments, many of whom use these platforms to enforce their authoritarianism.
AMLO’s comparison of online platforms’ move against Trump with the Spanish Inquisition is, it goes without saying, an exaggeration. Rulers will always retain enormous power of communication to support their public policies and defend them against criticism. But the Mexican president’s analogy is telling, suggesting the forceful imposition of an outside orthodoxy. In fact, the limits to Trump’s power of expression on these private online platforms reside in respecting the minimum conditions of a democratic conversation, such as not inciting violence.
In the following months, federal elections to renew the Chamber of Deputies in the Mexican Congress represent a challenge for López Obrador and Morena. Although he continues to enjoy high personal support among voters, his government’s job approval on basic issues such as security, the economy, and health is negative. This will surely push López Obrador and his political allies to intensify the use of their communication resources, such as social networks, to offer an alternative reality to counter the negative balance of his administration.
The challenge for internet platforms will be to determine where to draw the lines on the part of the president’s messaging, especially in light of his pre-emptive attack on their censorship. López Obrador framed the discussion as a matter of censorship, abuse of power, and an affront to national sovereignty by foreign private companies. In times of fake news and alternate realities, it would not be surprising if this argument is taken up by other rulers elsewhere.