Social Media: A Tool for Authoritarian Leaders?

Rather than promoting democratic values, social media is benefiting authoritarian politicians worldwide, and new laws are needed to combat it.

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With over 200 million Americans using various online platforms to broadcast their political views and 62 percent of adults using social media as their primary source of news, the role that social media played in the 2016 presidential election was unprecedented. Politicians used Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram as some of their primary forms of voter outreach, whether by live streaming debates between candidates or having aggressive back-and-forths and social media “battles” among themselves. In addition, certain news outlets used the massive reach of these platforms to publish sensationalized or fake news stories in order to sway voter opinion on candidates or even discourage certain voter populations from going to the polls. Many hoax websites spread false information that discredited candidates or misinformed voters about how to vote on election day. And, according to a recent study in Science Advances, conservatives were four times more likely to share fake news on Facebook than liberals; spreading such false information became a right-wing tool to prop up now-president Donald Trump.

Two years later, social media continues to play an ever greater role in elections around the world. Perhaps the best example of this was the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, in which far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won after massive social media campaigns that spread fake news about his leftist opponent, Fernando Haddad. Authoritarian governments, such as those in Russia, China, and the Philippines, have also begun mobilizing social media platforms as propaganda machines that suppress and disrupt democratic movements that threaten their rule.

This marks a dramatic shift from precedent. For years, unrestricted social media was viewed as a tool of democratization, particularly because of the role it played in the 2011 Arab Spring protests across the Middle East. In countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, protesters published articles containing vitriolic (and often anti-authoritarian) political commentary and shared images and videos of human rights atrocities to weaken the grip of the many autocratic governments in the region. This spread of information helped spread protests for democracy around the region rapidly.

But the aspect of social media that made it so promising as a weapon of democratization, its enormous scale, now looks like a double-edged sword. With mass audiences and ever increasing speeds of interaction, social media also facilitates the spread of misinformation and false content. According to an MIT study on the spread of fake news through Twitter, truthful information can take about six times longer than falsified information to reach 1,500 people. The novelty and appeal of “clickbait” headlines mean that they are far more likely to be rapidly spread throughout social media, while the appropriate corrections take a lot longer to spread—and rarely with the same impact.

The spread of fake news and misinformation on social media, especially during election cycles, only serves to weaken people’s trust in democratic institutions, paving the way for populist, authoritarian, and (more often than not) right-wing leaders to take to power. At the moment, we are only at the beginning of an era marked by the authoritarian takeover of social media. But it won’t be long before powerful regimes like those in Hungary and Turkey begin to harness the power of the Internet to push their own political agendas and tighten their hold over their people.

When such a takeover of social media occurs, it is unlikely that much will be done by social media companies. Even now, many platforms avoid using censorship to protect their platforms, as the practice goes against the basic idea of unhindered free speech. Some companies (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) have taken steps to promote fact-checking of news sources referenced on their sites, but it is unclear what impact that will have, if any.

A more effective way to fight back against fake news on social media is by creating laws specifically focused on reforming preexisting defamation policies. Defamation is the damage of one’s reputation, whether with written (libel) or spoken (slander) words. Many countries, including the U.S., do not make defamation a crime. Rather, they make it an intentional tort (a civil wrong) that can only be punished through a lawsuit. These type of laws would allow for fake news-promoting publications to be sued. But there are two main loopholes that could feasibly prevent it from being effective. In the first place, the rate at which fake news articles are published and spread throughout social media makes it extraordinarily difficult for plaintiffs to respond to all fake news articles in time. Furthermore, not all fake news on the internet is slander, and much of it involves the manufacturing and publication of false facts, statistics, and information—none of which are crimes under U.S. law.

Countries with defamation laws similar to those of the US have set about tackling this issue by creating new laws specifically targeting fake news and false information. For example, last year, Germany announced it would be enforcing its NetzDG policy, which mandates that social media platforms eliminate fake news within 24 hours or face fines of up to 50 million Euros ($58 million). Malaysia’s laws target people who create or circulate fake news online with fines of over $120,000 or up to six years in prison. But a better policy for most nations to adopt would be a modified combination of Germany’s and Malaysia’s policies, such as a law that would mandate social media companies to remove fake news from their platforms within three days and punish people who spread fake news with fines at low rates between $100 and $500. This law would be far more manageable for social media companies to enforce and would implement a reasonable punishment on people who spread fake news.

As of now, the spread of fake news and false headlines does not promise to end democracy as we know it. But if meaningful action is not taken soon, that may very well come to pass.