It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest now helps far-right, authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of democratic systems — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power.
It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth: Social media, in the way that it’s used now, is an authoritarian medium.
.. “It seems undeniable,” Deibert writes, “that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”
Ten years ago, Deibert’s view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have sounded absurd.
In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, democratizing. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies — or, at least, that’s how the argument went.
There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.”
.. This theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload.
A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.
.. The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread false information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s independent press to expose or discredit. The falsehoods these messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.
.. A recent study found that conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook as liberals. Another study, from researchers at the University of Oxford, found that conservative users were overwhelmingly more likely to spread “junk news” (defined as outlets that “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information”).
“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the Oxford researchers write. “Extreme hard right [Facebook] pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”
.. We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for “patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.
Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-right populists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisionsto anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots.
But while the global challenge to democracy from within isn’t social media’s fault, the major platforms do seem to be making this crisis worse. The platforms by their nature allow far-right politicians to marginalize opponents, consolidate their base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. It helps them act like authoritarians even inside the confines of a democratic political system.
“Social media [outlets] not only are compatible with authoritarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why authoritarian practices are now spreading worldwide,” as Deibert puts it.