The Unintended Consequences of the Social Media Revolution – Democracy Under Threat

November 8, 2017 – In a recent statement, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, stated, “one of the things I did not understand was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy.” By systems, Schmidt was talking about Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms that were being hacked or manipulated in nefarious ways. Schmidt went on to say, “I worry that the Russians in 2020 will have a lot more powerful tools” in which “to control the information space.”

When social media first came on the scene its purpose seemed simple. People could share information about themselves. Facebook began as an enhanced telephone directory with connectivity for Harvard University students to message each other, post pictures, and indicate likes and interests. Today more than 2 billion Facebook users are interconnected. But the nature of that connectivity which was first seen as a way to break down the barriers that separate nations and cultures, has moved away from this “Age of Enlightenment” with freedom of expression, to one where the tools have turned to disseminating bigotry, lies, and poison under the oxymoron “fake news.” News used to be about disseminating facts. In America, however, journalists have often been pretty loosey-goosey at times. William Randolph Hearst is best known for his spreading of false news in what has been historically referred to as “yellow journalism.” The Spanish-American War may have been America’s first dip into a war largely fuelled by the “fake news” of Hearst’s newspaper empire.

Today’s biggest disseminators of this fakery lie in anti-democratic countries around the world.

North Korea, China, Russia, and others are immersed in spreading it. When told to us by the other side we have historically called it propaganda. The American President, Donald Trump, has rebranded it “fake news” and laid the blame for it on the traditional North American media. Meanwhile Russian hackers, allegedly working on behalf of the Russian government, have turned to social media as a means of spreading it. And it is in this context that the disinformation being disseminated is eroding free speech and democracy.

Social media is very persuasive because of the familiar. When someone you know asks you to like or retweet a posting he or she is drawing on friendship or acquaintanceship to compel you to respond. And thus revolutions are borne in places like Ukraine, or in the Arab Spring, both fueled by social media until sparks turned into flames. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of populist leaders in middle-Europe, and the triumph of Trump were all facilitated by fear and falsehoods spread on social media. As one observer described it….we went from democracy to mobocracy through the posting of “fake news.”

Whether through posted videos, articles, leaked documents, or text messages, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media apps, disseminate information that mainstream media may initially ignore until outcomes occur that make the legitimate news. For Alphabet with its YouTube property and Google, the problem of disinformation threatens its profitability.

Today Google is the dominant information portal to all the world’s online knowledge. Its developers don’t want it to be the portal that delivers lies.

YouTube, similarly doesn’t want its video network to be a tool for spreading propaganda. The company, therefore, is developing an early disinformation warning system through its subsidiary, Jigsaw. The latest tool created is called Fact Check, a service provided within Google’s search engine that uses a variety of criteria to determine if an online posting meets certain criteria whether a news article or opinion piece. Alphabet has also launched Project Owl, the development of algorithms that can spot misinformation and delete it from search results. But the company has a long way to go since video that appears legitimate can easily be manipulated, and spotting a fake story from real news, can end up delegitimizing the latter in an effort to catch the former. And as for opinion, who is the arbiter of its appropriateness or not? In the case of Alphabet, that’s asking a lot of an algorithm.

Facebook and Twitter remain weak links in the chain of legitimate news sources.

Facebook has taken a few small steps around postings with “more info” buttons added to its postings and pages so that viewers can find related articles or be connected to the original source where the information was gleaned. The company has launched a Facebook journalism project dedicated to “a healthy news ecosystem.” The goals are:

  • to do collaborative development of news;
  • to create e-learning courses to train those reporting “news;” including laypersons with no news gathering and writing background.

The company has pledged to work with independent third-party fact-checking organizations to oust hoaxes planted on Facebook. Considering the damage perceived from what has already taken place, Facebook’s efforts appear weak and dissembling.

Twitter has been the voice of President Trump from before his election to today. But unknown to most it also was and is home to an enormous number of fake accounts that spew misinformation tweets daily. Many of these bogus accounts are Trump followers. It is estimated in total that 5% of all Twitter accounts are fake. Trump’s Twitter account alone, according to an article published in Vogue in August of this year includes more than 4 million “bots” which are fake accounts.

It’s one thing to be a fake account; it’s another to be an active spreader of disinformation through such accounts. In an article entitled, Fake Persuaders, the author Tom Simonite writing in the March 23, 2015, edition of the MIT Technology Review, describes how easy it is to set up fake accounts on Twitter, and Facebook.

Here’s what you do.

  1. You copy profile information and photos from someone else’s pages on the Web.
  2. You then lure people to become friends or followers of the site with the fastest way to post a picture of an attractive woman.
  3. After you are established you then purchase “likes” and “followers” from online sites that offer 100,000 connections for as little as $70.
  4. Now you start publishing tweets with fake followers that spread the news to legitimate users who are then read the tweets and then can link to misinformation sources.

In the case of the American presidential election, a study done in September by The New York Times states that “Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. Many were automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages seconds apart.”

Should we be shutting down Social Media Sites to Protect the Future of Democracy?

This is a fair question. Governments, to-date, are at a loss as to how to deal with most aspects of social media, let alone its current relationships with disinformation. When Barack Obama harnessed the positive power of social media in his two campaigns for President of the United States, clearly some of the wrong types of people saw the power of persuasion that these technologies could bring to politics. And now social media has become an instrument that can become a significant destructive force. As much as Alphabet, Facebook, and Twitter, may talk about dealing with the damage done in so many recent political campaigns among western democracies, they will likely always be behind the perpetrators of hoaxes and misinformation. It seems, therefore, that government must now step in to legislate rules to which the social media giants must abide. The companies are bound to lobby hard against any legislation with teeth arguing that they can police their apps without government intervention.

Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State for National Security under Obama, points out that even if the social media companies do their due diligence, the troublemakers who create “fake news” will still exist, whether it is the Fox News network, Donald Trump, or the Russians. In a recent interview, Blinken states, “Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees: the problem is Russia and other actors who use our openness against us, not the platforms…..The biggest mistake we can make is to get into a circular firing squad with government and the tech companies. The only winner in that scenario is Russia.”


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...