In an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 27th, Janine Zachariah writes:
“The hijacking of social media is now primarily a national security story, and one that should matter to any American who cares about the integrity of our democracy. Congress is right to demand answers from Silicon Valley executives and then, perhaps, yes, subject them to regulations just like any other industry from food to medicine to banking. If the companies find this all too onerous, then perhaps there will be a market for new social networking sites that are up to the task.”
Fallout from the 2016 general election has generated a watershed moment for tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. Russian “bots” and fake accounts had an impact on the news (mainly fake news) that may have tipped the election in Donald Trump’s favor, and definitely exposed millions of Americans to misleading information. What responsibility do these tech companies have to monitor fake accounts? What counts as abuse? When well-known alt-right activist Roger Stone’s account was recently suspended on Twitter, many felt that it was overdue, due to his previous abusive behavior.
As Senator Dianne Feinstein has declared, “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.” It is time for these companies to rely more heavily on the expertise of those in the social sciences who conduct research on politics and “warfare” of all kinds to help them chart a path through these turbulent waters.
Russian interference may also have been at play in Europe, influencing the vote to leave the European Union in the UK (Brexit vote); populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries may also have been beneficiaries of Russian interference. Social media is playing a role in bringing together supporters of these parties, and allowing them to express their grievances in new ways. For example, the German AfD (Alternative for Germany) shifted its focus from the Euro currency to immigration, tapping into the concerns many felt regarding the surge of Muslim refugees into the country in the last few years. In the September 2017 election to the Federal Bundestag, the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the first far-right party to enter the parliament since World War II.
Far right, alt-right, and populist parties have been taking advantage of social media for many years. What has changed with the most recent elections is that they have been able to take advantage of targeted ads and the “bubbles” that have been created when social media users limit their media consumption to those who are most like them (see the BoingBoing site that compares liberal and conservative media side-by-side). Russian agents were able to take advantage of this, creating fake news that influenced people’s attitudes toward political candidates, particularly Hilary Clinton. Mainstream media was also impacted, as evidenced by their focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails despite even more egregious actions being taken by the Trump campaign and his associates.
In my book on the radical right, I noted that mainstream parties often fight the radical right by convincing voters that they will not form coalitions with far-right parties. This strategy is often referred to as creating a “cordon sanitaire” or buffer between themselves and the parties in question. This has kept many of these parties out of parliaments as well as out of government. However, social media is changing these calculations; the buffer is no longer keeping the far right out of power. For example, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France won the most seats ever in the French legislative election in June of 2017. In elections across Europe, social democratic parties have received some of the lowest percentages of the vote in recent memory. As party allegiances shift away from traditional parties, it is difficult for mainstream politicians to stigmatize the far right.
Until recently, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were able to stand on the sidelines while their algorithms did the work of creating online communities. Populist politicians were early adopters, starting with web pages then moving on to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds where their supporters could find others of a like mind.
These companies need to get ahead of the political situation and be proactive in their monitoring of the political climate. Facebook is now trying to identify fake news or recommend a Snopes story when someone shares fake news. Twitter has dedicated its staff to rooting out Russian manipulation. This is only part of what needs to be done to avoid these problems. Many social scientists are already doing some of the work that would have called attention to the problem at Twitter. As noted in a Bloomberg article, in 2015 scholars at UC Berkeley found numerous fake Twitter accounts, including many registered in Russia and Ukraine.
Social scientists, particularly political scientists can help these companies develop a better understanding of the political context they are functioning in. Many political scientists are already doing this work; cooperation between tech companies and academics can produce even more helpful information. For example, international relations and comparative politics specialists who work on Russia and its political behavior could help these companies to develop strategies to help identify potential problems as political conditions change and new technologies enter the scene. This type of research is as important as the software engineers who devise the algorithms – and will be necessary for exploring the impact of those algorithms. Facebook and Twitter have the data. It’s time to share expertise.