Stop the Manipulation of Democracy Online

The opposition leader Raila Odinga during Kenyan elections last month. Political camps set up teams of paid bloggers, social media influencers and bots to shape public opinion online. Credit Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Surreptitious techniques pioneered in Moscow and Beijing to use the internet to drown out dissent and undermine free elections broke into view during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. But Russian efforts to influence the American election are part of a larger, profound challenge to democracy worldwide.

Online manipulation tactics played an important role in at least 17 other elections over the past year. From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves.

In the Philippines, members of a “keyboard army” said they could earn $10 a day operating social media accounts that supported Rodrigo Duterte or attacked his detractors in the run-up to his May 2016 election as president. Many of those social media fabricators have remained active under his administration, amplifying the impression of widespread support for his brutal crackdown on the drug trade.

During the 2017 election season in Kenya, political camps set up teams of paid bloggers, social media influencers and bots to shape public opinion online. Overt disinformation, propaganda and hate speech targeted individuals and organizations affiliated with the opposite political camp via Twitter hashtags, Google Ads and Facebook sponsored posts.

In the lead-up to presidential elections in Ecuador, social media accounts belonging to politicians, journalists and opposition activists were hijacked and used to disseminate messages against the opposition’s vice-presidential candidate.

Efforts by government authorities to shape and control online discussions go well beyond elections and have grown each year since Freedom House began tracking the problem in 2009. When it examined internet freedom in 65 countries in 2016 and 2017 (representing 87 percent of global internet users), its Freedom on the Net project found governments in nearly half of the nations deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information to stay in power and undermine the opposition.

The practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated. Bots, propaganda producers and fake news outlets exploit social media and search algorithms to integrate seamlessly with trusted content, posing a devastating new threat to democracy. The dangers undermine elections, political debate and virtually every other aspect of governing.

In Turkey, 6,000 people have been enlisted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party to manipulate discussions and counter opponents on social media. The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico relies on an estimated 75,000 automated accounts — Peñabots — to overwhelm political critics on Twitter. In Iran, the government has long created internet sites that mimic those of legitimate news organizations like the BBC; these fakes are filled with conspiracy theories and anti-Western propaganda.

Unlike direct censorship, like shutting down mobile service, online content manipulation is difficult to detect and is far more difficult to combat, given the sheer number of people and bots deployed. The fabrication of grass-roots support for government policies creates a closed loop in which the authorities essentially use social media to endorse themselves, making the views of citizens irrelevant.

Restoring trust in social media and the internet requires defensive actions against the manipulation armies. A first step is for the United States and other democracies to ensure that political advertising is at least as transparent online as it is offline, an issue now being debated in Congress. Online political ads should be required to indicate who sponsored them; social media companies should have to make this information available and indicate the source of the payment for such ads.

As we have seen in recent weeks, big tech companies also face pressure from Congress and European governments to more aggressively weed out hate speech and to take other steps to remove online sludge. There is indeed room for smarter curation of news feeds and search algorithms — with more human oversight.

But these approaches, unless handled skillfully, also risk narrowing political debate and undermining internet freedom, as witnessed in Germany, where popular social media companies are now required to take down offending information quickly or risk fines of up to 50 million euros.

The problem is likely to get more complicated. More and more data is being collected about Americans’ political views, personal habits and sensitive financial and health information, while that data is becoming harder to keep secure from hackers and hostile governments.

Those forces are part of the weaponization of the internet used so skillfully by Russian operatives and their protégés. Online manipulation also becomes easier if perpetrators are able to identify a subgroup of people most susceptible to their message and most likely to share it with others in their network, a task made easier by the data-collection practices of popular social media companies.

There is no panacea; constant vigilance and education are required to attack this problem. Young people and other web users must be taught to take seriously the demands of cybersecurity. High schools should be including media literacy as part of history and social science curriculums.

Most of all, students and others must be put on alert that there really is fake news — false information deliberately planted by malevolent actors — and that they need to be on guard against propaganda masquerading as truth.

The future of democracy may well rest on our ability to tell the difference.

Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House.

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