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
DRI´s Senior Programme Officer and Governance & Innovation Expert Raymond Serrato “examined about 15,000 Facebook posts from supporters of the hardline nationalist Ma Ba Tha group. The earliest posts dated from June 2016 and spiked on 24 and 25 August 2017, when ARSA Rohingya militants attacked government forces, prompting the security forces to launch the “clearance operation” that sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya pouring over the border.” Guardian
The discussion on disinformation (“fake news”) turns increasingly towards the question of how to prevent the phenomenon in the first place. The author of this opinion piece argues that prohibitive measures run the risk of either being ineffective (if very restrictive in their scope) or of being subjective and politically motivated (if too broad in their scope). He calls for distinguishing between technical cyber warfare threats (which should be prohibited and addressed directly) and the cognitive approach mis-using social media’s tendency to reward polarizing and extreme content to create disinformation campaigns (which should be addressed indirectly via digital education and transparency measures).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.