Midterms and social media in the era of disinformation

3 mins read

By Anton Rosén

According to some historians, the exchange of ideas and political discussions that took place in 18th century bourgeois coffeehouses were the catalyst of modern western democracy. In the 21st century the main place for public discussion has changed from the coffeehouses to the social media networks.

After the election of Obama in 2008, it became apparent that social media was an effective tool for political influencing. In 2016 Donald Trump was elected and this time the power of social media came into a new spotlight. The platforms became synonymous with election interference. Places where ordinary voters had been deceived through the coordinated spreading of disinformation like the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, a conspiracy that connected a pizzeria in Washington to a fictitious trafficking ring within the Democratic Party. Ahead of the midterm elections, there’s worry that history will repeat itself.

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” these were the words of Mark Zuckerberg a couple of days after Donald Trump swung home the electoral college. After a closer look at what really happened on Facebook that election year, uncovering about 80.000 subversive posts coming out of Russia, and grillings in Senate hearings, he’s changed his mind. The 12th of September this year he posted an essay where he described the situation combating disinformation as an arms race. Zuckerberg has stated that Facebook is much better prepared for the upcoming midterm elections than they were in the presidential election. The arms race has funneled development of technology that helps detect disinformation. It has also increased Facebook’s safety and security staff from 10.000 to over 20.000 in 2018. However, Zuckerberg has also made it clear that Facebook can’t fight this war alone because the issue of disinformation is not confined to Facebook. Closer cooperation with government agencies, other tech-companies and journalists are integral to prevent future election interference. Facebook is doing something right because the amount of interactions with fake news and disinformation has been in decline since 2016.  

Twitter is also a company that has been forced to change how they operate but they don’t seem to do as well as Facebook at keeping up with the vast flow of misinformation. In June this year, the company announced a purge of suspicious accounts linked to organizations, such as the Russian Internet Research Agency, a Russian misinformation troll farm. However, a study done by the Knight Foundation found that more than 80 percent of accounts related to disinformation campaigns in the 2016’s Presidential election are still active. The accounts were, and are still, to a large majority pro-Republican, pro-Trump and in line with the Kremlin agenda. They were also late when it came to banning Alex Jones and Infowars, a story that has mostly to do with abuse and hate speech but inevitably relates to disinformation.

Twitter doesn´t have the same resources as Facebook so we shouldn’t be surprised that they fall behind, although we should be concerned. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told The Washington Post in August this year that “We often turn to policy to fix a lot of these issues, but I think that is only treating surface-level symptoms that we are seeing”. Although this could just be a way to dismantle critique, Dorsey accurately pinpoints a fundamental question, does Facebook’s resources and Twitter’s lackthereof pose the fundamental solution when it comes to combating disinformation or is it something innate in the social media business model  that has to change?

History shows that the environment in which information flows and discussions are made matters for the development of society. The coffeehouses in the 18th century gave witness to a change in power relationships. The bourgeois could push for changes against state and church partly based on their real life experiences but also based on the information that flowed in the coffeehouses. This contributed to development of democracy.

As social media has become the predominant place for information flow and discussion in the 21st century, we should be concerned about the state of social media. The disinformation discourse is certainly bringing change to the platforms. The coffeehouses served as catalysts for democracy, so it’s only reasonable that we should ask ourselves what kind of catalysts we want social media to be. What power relationships do we want them to foster? We cannot have a laissez-faire attitude towards what’s allowed to flow on social media since it threatens our democracy. Powerful companies such as Facebook might have the resources to tackle the disinformation problem head-on, but what consequences might that bring in the long run in terms of e.g internet surveillance? Should we start to question the core of social media, which would probably mean stripping it of many of the things that makes it so attractive to users and advertisers? If the current recipe championed by Facebook would falter maybe it’s time to adhere Dorsey’s scepticism. And even if the Facebook-formula does work, is it sustainable? There’s no clear destination for the future of social media on the horizon but the midterms give us an indicator in what direction we’re sailing.  

Anton Rosén is studying the media- and communications program. While Trump thinks he has the best words its actually truer that Anton has. He prefers matcha tea over coffee and Svantes over Orvars. He´ll consider any and all matters to write about but has a weak spot for issues regarding China and Iran.


 Photo: Flickr

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