Social media has become a powerful tool for expressing views. When we hear views, these may be genuine views or something we knowingly portray so that others think of us exactly how we want. Social media is not just restricted to entertainment anymore; it is a wide platform where people express their political views and what they think of their Governments. But this raises a question here, is
Social media getting manipulated to undermine democracy?
Governments around the world have tried immensely to manipulate social media over the past years. Many observers have figured that authoritarian states like Russia and China have gone very far at manipulating social media platforms to destabilize the democracies abroad. This practice has gone global ever since. What’s getting less attention is how authoritarian factions inside democratic states — far-right politicians and parties benefit from how modern social media works. All of this is threatening the notion of the internet being a liberating technology.
Disinformation and online manipulation tactics have played a crucial role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past few years. This, to a very great extent, damaged the people’s ability to choose their leaders based on facts and authentic debate.
The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”
Content manipulation is taking place in many ways
Several examples of hacking, leaking, and insertion of fake news online occur across geographical boundaries. This has become possible due to the motivated groups and individuals who wish to promote a specific world view. Another technique of content manipulation is the use of bots or automated accounts or buying followers, views and likes to carry out the news agenda. These accounts play a crucial role in spreading and amplifying fake news and false information. These fake accounts by coordinated activity can enhance the chances of trending fake news or reduce the possibility of legitimate news being found by social media users on social media platforms like Twitter.
“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, but it is also more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”
“The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside,” Kelly said.
Freedom of the Net 2017 had an assessment in 65 countries about internet freedom, accounting for 87 percent of the internet users worldwide. It has been found that there were less than one-third of people residing in countries where the internet is designated free, which means there were no obstacles to access the content. The use of automated bots and fake news has gained attention, particularly in the USA. While the country’s online environment was free, it was bothered by forged articles and journalists’ aggressive harassments after the presidential election campaign.
There is an urgent need to find ways to enable democracy to defend itself and bring into the open the intentional tactics being used to undermine public discourse and democracy. “Populists and far-right leaders have grown adept not only at creating viral disinformation but also at harnessing networks that disseminate it,” said the watchdog’s 2019 “Freedom on the Net” report.
Social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, along with fact-checking sites, have enhanced ways to act against propaganda at a human scale. As a result, running a misinformation campaign across the borders is much cheaper and easier than defending against one.
Unlike the other methods of direct censorships, such as arrest for internet activity and website blocking, content manipulation is quite difficult to detect. It is also very difficult to battle due to the various numbers of bots and people employed for this matter.
The impact of these severely spreading techniques is quite devastating. It will take both time and effort to successfully counter content manipulation and fake news tactics without sacrificing media freedom. The first thing to be done in this context is to spread public education focused on teaching the users how to detect fake news. Apart from this, all the states should ensure that political advertising is very transparent online as it remains offline.
Also, social media platforms should actively scan for fake accounts and bots generating fabricated news. There should also be a commitment from political parties in democracies to greater transparency on how they are using citizen data. Bots account for a tremendous amount of traffic on social media, particularly Twitter. Suppose companies fail to step up to this challenge voluntarily. In that case, governments should initially put in place incentives for companies to act through self-regulatory mechanisms.
Now comes the most important question:
What is the industry doing to solve the content manipulation issues?
Is that enough to curb the devastating challenges of misinformation in the digital era?
As public concern and awareness are growing rapidly, many tech companies have announced initiatives to handle the situation in their own ways. Immediately after receiving a backlash over fake news during the US Presidential election in 2016, Facebook announced that it will start flagging fake news stories with the help of outside fact-checkers and users. Facebook also stated that readers would be able to inform Facebook about the possible fake news and stories, which then will be sent to outside fact-checking organizations to verify.
Facebook is now working with 5 outside fact-checking organizations – AP, FactCheck.org, Snopes, ABC news, and Politifact. If a significant number of Facebook users report the news as fake, it will be sent to these outside fact-checking platforms for further scrutiny. If such stories fail to pass the fact check, they will be marked as “disputed by third-party fact-checkers.”
Along with the tech companies, the Government is equally concerned about content manipulation, misinformation, and fake news and how it can manipulate the public sphere. Several Governments have initiated inquiries, established units to check fake news, and proposed regulations regarding the same. Gambia and Egypt had legislations to battle the fake news and misinformation, which then was criticized by free speech supporters. The German Parliament also passed a law to impose fines on social media companies having more than two million users if they fail to remove fake content or news within 24 hours.
Individuals should pay attention to how the public sphere works to build resilience into the democratic system. As much as tech companies and governments, each citizen should take the responsibility to curb the situation for betterment.