Evidence Mounts Of Social Media’s Negative Impacts For Democracy

This week we learned more about the negative impacts that social media are having on democracy and internet freedom worldwide. On Monday, Freedom House published its “Freedom on the Net 2019” report, which warned of a worsening “crisis of social media.”

The report warns that social media “are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism” as more governments and “unscrupulous partisan operatives” use social media for repressive purposes. These include not only malign propaganda campaigns at home and abroad, but also growing government use of social media for mass surveillance. “As a result of these trends,” Freedom House reports, “global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019.”

These findings are based on an assessment of the state of internet freedom in 65 countries. The results are not encouraging. Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 saw a decline in internet freedom, with a record 47 featuring “arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech.”

The United States’ Role In The Social Media Crisis

While authoritarian countries continued their slide in internet freedom, with China ranked as “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year,” the United States was also among those countries that saw a decline in internet freedom. The report takes note of U.S. law enforcement surveillance of social media, search of travelers’ phones, and demands for access to travelers’ social media at borders. The report also reminds readers that while foreign actors engage in politically motivated social media disinformation campaigns against Americans, such tactics are also increasingly used by American political operatives against other Americans.

Those social media companies most often implicated in the rise of what Freedom House calls “digital authoritarianism” are headquartered in the United States. As such, the report concludes that “the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media” and that the United States must take the lead in that effort.

Unfortunately, the report argues, it is a task that the United States has largely neglected. Little progress has been made, for example, on the two pages of detailed recommendations that the report (PDF) offers for policymakers, private companies, and civil society organizations to address the problems of social media manipulation, surveillance, internet freedom, and election cybersecurity.

Mounting Evidence Of Social Media’s Threat To Democracy

The Freedom House report is the latest such report to call out the increasing threat that social media poses to freedom and democracy worldwide. Also this week, a report from Chatham House warned that “online political campaigning techniques are distorting our democratic political processes.” Techniques include use of social media to spread disinformation, use of social media data for surveillance and micro-targeting, use of bots or semi-automated accounts, and use of fake personas. “Such techniques,” the report says, “have outpaced regulatory initiatives” thus far.

The two reports this week come on the heels of a September report from the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute. That report, the “2019 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” had similar findings to the ones this week. The Oxford report found “evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns which have taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017.” That report also notes the increasing use of social media by authoritarian regimes, as well as a group of seven “sophisticated state actors” like China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela who are increasingly using social media not just against their own populations but in foreign influence operations as well.

Twitter Is Still On The Front Lines

Each of the reports makes note of the fact that Facebook and Twitter are key platforms for social media manipulation and disinformation. Twitter in particular made news recently for its announcement that it would ban political advertisements on its site. It is a move that many hailed as progress in the fight against disinformation and election interference.

But then, this week, we learned that Twitter removed a network of bot accounts pushing pro-Saudi Arabia messages about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reporting and removal of such networks has become common in recent months.

More shocking, however, is news this week that two former Twitter employees have been indicted by the Department of Justice for allegedly spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The Washington Post reported that the two employees are accused of “accessing the company’s information on dissidents who use the platform” and passing that information to the Saudi government.

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I am an Adjunct Scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. I am the author ...