by Antônio F. Oliveira
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Misinformation, polarization and manipulation: the challenges of social networks in politics
Since the emergence of social media in the mid-2000s, the internet has been viewed as a promise of greater democratization and participation in politics. The possibility of direct communication between citizens, politicians and institutions seemed to offer a path to greater transparency, engagement and inclusion, but recent years have also shown that the internet is not a neutral terrain. The uses of digital technologies in politics are permeated by risks such as electoral manipulation and manipulation of public opinion. In this topic, we will discuss some data and concrete examples that illustrate this panorama, such as the influence of foreign companies on national elections and the creation of disinformation networks to manipulate public opinion. All of this is to give us a clearer idea of how this phenomenon has behaved and the results it has brought to society.
1/7 – A 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on social media use in the United States revealed a prevalent negative view of these platforms. According to the study, 62% of adult respondents believed that social media has a more negative impact than positive on the country’s politics. Only 29% stated that the impact is more positive. The survey also indicated that 77% of respondents believe that social media distracts people from important things in life and 55% believe that it increases conflict and tension between people. These results suggest that there is a prevailing view that social media can have negative effects, particularly on politics and interpersonal relationships. (Pew Research Center, 2016).
Reference: Pew Research Center. (2016). Social Media Update 2016. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/11/11/social-media-update- 2016/
2/7 – This view is reinforced by a 2019 study published in the journal Science Advances, which pointed to the effects of social mediads algorithms on social polarization and fragmentation. For the research, the authors collected data from 10 million Twitter users between 2009 and 2016. Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the researchers analyzed users’ connections and the content they shared, such as tweets, retweets and replies. The results indicated that the platforms tend to amplify extreme voices and reinforce political polarization. Furthermore, social media content recommendation algorithms favor exposure to confirmatory information and limit the diversity of perspectives and opinions. (Science Advances, 2019).
Reference: Barberá, Pablo, et al. “How social media facilitates political protest: information, motivation and social networks”. Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2019. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aau4586
3/7 – The article “Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, found that fake news on social media has the potential to change electoral outcomes. Researchers used a random sample of about 13,500 Twitter users and collected information about their interactions with news links shared on the platform. They also used a random sample of about 23,000 Facebook users and collected information about their interactions with news links in the news feed. (Motta et al. 2017).
Reference: Motta, M., C. Stecula and D. Farhart. 2017. “Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.1902058116
4/7 – One of the most well-known examples of misuse of social media in election campaigns was the case involving the political marketing company La Française des Jeux in the 2017 French presidential election, as revealed by the investigation of the newspaper Le Monde. The company allegedly used fake profiles on social media to influence public opinion in favor of one of the candidates, a practice that is condemnable and illegal in many countries (Le Monde, 2021).
Reference: Le Monde. (2021, July 26). La Commission européenne ouvre une enquête sur l’octroi de droits exclusifs à La Française des Jeux. https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/07/26/la-commission-europeenne-ouvre-une-enquete-sur-l-octroi-de-droits-exclusifs-a-la-francaise-des-jeux_6089570_3234.html
5/7 – One more worrying example occurred during the 2019 presidential election in India, which was marked by the massive use of bots on social media to spread political propaganda and misinformation. Millions of bots were deployed in the election campaign, which had a significant impact on public opinion and the final election outcome.
Reference: “The impact of digital media on the 2019 Indian general election.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2019. https://www.kas.de/en/web/politikdialog-asien/single-title/-/content/the-impact-of-digital-media-on-the-2019-indian-general-election
6/7 – During the United Kingdom’s referendum on leaving the European Union in 2016, social media was flooded with fake news and disinformation on the topic. These practices may have significantly influenced the outcome of the referendum and raised questions about the ethics of using social media in election campaigns.
7/7 – During the 2022 presidential elections in Brazil, several social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, along with the Brazilian Supreme Court, allowed the dissemination of unfounded accusations that the then-incumbent candidate, Jair M. Bolsonaro, was a pedophile and genocidal, even without concrete evidence. This fake news was propagated by hundreds of radios, journalism channels and independent creators on YouTube, as well as verified and unverified profiles on Twitter, Instagram hashtags and Facebook groups, throughout the electoral campaign.
Sources: Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/bolsonarogenocida/ | Twitter: https://twitter.com/search?q=Bolsonaro%20ped %C3%B3filo&src=typed_query&f=top | Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/search/groups/?q=bolsonaro%20genocida | YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Bolsonaro+genocida
At the same time, these very same social media platforms, along with the Brazilian Supreme Court, restricted the freedom of expression of the Jovem Pan radio network and the Revista Oeste magazine, as well as millions of independent profiles, who referred to the then-presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a “thief”, “abortionist”, “former inmate” and “head of a criminal organization”. It is important to highlight that these claims are not false, as Lula was prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for corruption and money laundering by three unanimous judicial instances. Moreover, the Minister for Women, Cida Gonçalves, after the 2022 election, stated that she will work to allow the right to abortion in the country.
Sources: Jovem Pan: https://jovempan.com.br/noticias/brasil/jovem-pan-sob-censura.html. Terra: https://www.terra.com.br/noticias/lula-vai-a- julgamento-na-3-instancia-veja-a-cronologia-do-caso-do-triplex-do-guaruja,4bc8b354cf51500b428c24471c034045jhyxifcc.html. CNN Brasil: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/politica/defendemos-o-direito-ao-aborto-legal-diz-nova-ministra-das-mulheres/
Moreover, it is important to mention that the 2022 Brazilian presidential election has been the subject of serious allegations of electoral fraud. According to reports from the Brazilian armed forces and a technology agency contracted by the Liberal Party, the party of former President Jair M. Bolsonaro, the source code of the electronic voting machines used in the election is secret and cannot be traced, and more than 50% of these machines throughout the country are unauditable. What is even more alarming is that, according to these reports, Bolsonaro was declared the winner of the election by a difference of one million votes. However, despite these suspicions, any questioning of the validity of the election is treated as fake news by social media and considered an attack on democracy by the Supreme Court.
Source: Jovem Pan: https://jovempan.com.br/noticias/politica/relatorio-das-forcas-armadas-nao-exclui-possibilidade-de-fraude-diz-ministerio-da- defesa.html. Gazeta do Povo: https://www.gazetadopovo.com.br/opiniao/editoriais/tse-radiolao-criterios-lula-bolsonaro/. Jornal da Cidade: https://www.jornaldacidadeonline.com.br/noticias/44005/urgente-em-relatorio-pl-diz-que-bolsonaro-teve-51-dos-votos
For more in this article, see:
- Prologue and Section 1: Literature Review
- Section 2: Data and real examples
- Section 3: Abuse of Power on Social Networks
- Section 4: Elon Musk exposes Twitter files
- Section 5: Behind the scenes of manipulation: techniques used to influence public opinion
- Section 6: Exploring solutions to the challenges presented: a critical review
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