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Recently, the complex relationship between social media and democracy has come into public focus. Social media doesn’t only expand the space for democratic participation, it can also be used to manipulate and undermine it. But we don’t know enough about the consequences, the extent of the problem, or what can be done about it. Given that this question gets at the core of how democratic societies are run, it is no surprise that research studies, opinion pieces, and ideas for policy reform abound and are increasingly hard to monitor. As a contribution to this field, we are publishing a digest of relevant work for this debate.

 

DRI’s Social Media & Democracy Digest

February 2018

The Disinformation Vaccine

In this piece, Nina Jankowicz looks at the potential solutions to disinformation campaigns and other negative effects of social media for democracy. She surveys existing innovative initiatives to teach digital and media literacy to citizens from around the world and argues against too much trust in what she considers quick fixes, such as de-bunking. Instead she advocates for investing in people’s abilities to deal and discern information received on the internet.

Why the hysteria around the ‘fake news epidemic’ is a distraction

In this opinion piece, the political scientist Cas Mudde makes the case for focusing on improving quality reporting of traditional media rather than getting distracted by the fake news phenomenon, which, as recent research shows, is more limited in its reach and thereby also in its impact than hitherto feared.  He also warns that the policy measures discussed to counter fake news could – in certain, authoritarian contexts, be used against the freedom of the media as such.

Harvesting Social Signals to Inform Peace Processes Implementation and Monitoring

This study uses Twitter data ahead of the referendum on the Colombian peace process in 2016 to predict the outcome of the referendum and to show that public sentiment on Twitter indicated a negative outcome for the referendum (different from public opinion polls). The study highlights the use of social media analytics for early warning systems on social conflict as well as as alternative to opinion polls for predicting election outcomes. 

Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford. “Measuring the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe.”

This report investigates how important “fake news media” is by looking at a number of online media in France and Italy. In both countries those websites which regularly carry fake news articles are much less widely read than the most prominent mainstream online news media. However, a few fake news sites are shown to create a disproportionately high number of interactions on their site, suggesting that, in some cases (i.e. for some news sites and some of their stories), fake news can indeed go viral. The article also discusses important methodological limitations of the chosen approach.

The Guardian. “‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth.” 

This article sheds light on the role that YouTube may play in forming political opinion. While a lot is being written about the role of Facebook and Twitter on democracy, YouTube has escaped scrutiny. The article argues that YouTube tends to recommend extremist or sensationalist content to keep viewers glued to the service, with negative effects on democracy. It cites research that suggests that in the US Presidential elections YouTube was far more likely to recommend pro-Trump film clips than those that would favour Clinton, because the Trump clips better served the algorithmic interest in sensational content.

 

 

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