By: Asgeir Barlaup
Social media transforms the public discourse, making it more prone to manipulation and deceit by demagogues and autocrats alike. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword in this new post-factual world, as alternative facts and weaponized information campaigns no longer are held back by fact-checkers and clear political insignia.
‘Populists and Autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy’ is far from a reassuring read, hinting at two potent strains of anti-democratic sentiment most vividly exemplified by Trump and Putin. While rumors of a common US-Russia foreign policy strategy have yet to materialize, the two men have already succeeded greatly in one important respect: using social media to bolster an unrelenting attack on the American political discourse, rendering it idle and weak at a critical point in time. What little remnants remain are largely dictated by the whiff of a tweet, or indefinitely stalled in the trenches of partisanship. Structural challenges to the media and the American political system itself have been in the making for decades, but no amount of apologist rhetoric can escape the fact that Mr Trump is the prime engineer of this post-truth reality (it remains to be seen whether Mr Putin was in on the joke all along or just an ardent supporter).
Mr Trump’s constant presence on Twitter resembles a one-man-show – throwing out tantrums and falsehoods from the highest office of government, desperate to be the focal point of our attention. Twitter gives him everything he needs in order to be the driving story of the day. While it might promote direct democracy by shortening the distance between the people and their elected representative, the message circumvents the fourth estate all together. The media still have the ability for critical inquiry, but they are no longer the primary vessel for transmitting and fact-checking the message itself. Rather they can be deemed quite a nuisance to his take on things. Or in his words: ‘They are among the most dishonest humans on the earth, right?’ You bet they are Mr. Trump. At least when they stand between you and the biggest, uncensored microphone in history.
Grabbing the social media bull by its oversensitive horns is just one way of twisting the public discourse. Another more subtle way is to produce your own livestock altogether. Putin-backed internet trolls and automated bots use the low entry-barriers of social media to inject misinformation on an industrial scale. Fake news and conspiracy theories amplify partisanship on both sides of the political spectrum, fueling indignation over deliberation. Hoaxes that used to be cut off from the mainstream are now becoming politicized, widespread and dangerously authentic. In a telling act of defiance, Mr Putin shuts down and restricts social media outlets at home, while using it as one of his foremost means of political warfare abroad.
In countering these threats one would first and foremost have to recognize the importance of the media, more specifically, an independent and critical media. Given the fluent boarders of the net, reporters don’t just speak truth to power domestically, but are on the frontlines of drowning out foreign misinformation too. This is why the current administration’s attempt to smear the US media as ‘the opposition’ is so profoundly damaging. If you reject all mainstream media based on Trumps convictions, why would you believe them when they suddenly point out Putin’s misdeeds instead?
The scope of foreign meddling is far broader than isolated hacking attempts (like obtaining the emails of an undesirable political candidate), contained under the sole mandate of the federal government. It constitutes an ever-more refined propaganda machinery of bloggers, video-makers and reporters alike. Putin has shown both will and capacity to use social media and more traditional outlets like ‘Russia Today’ to further his cause. The strategy has largely proved successful – stalling, if not vindicating Russia’s annexation of Crimea and nurturing the rise of nationalism across Europe (for what it’s worth, ‘Russia Today’ has twice the amount of subscribers on YouTube as BBC). An independent media is critical in countering these falsehoods, just like delegitimizing fact checkers and journalists strengthen their corrosive influence.
But an independent media isn’t enough in and of itself in countering these threats. Yes, they might slowly come to realize their immense responsibility – banning dishonest individuals is a promising first step. But the playing field is permanently altered – no similar ban on spreading alternative facts exists on social media, where people increasingly get their news. That’s why journalists’ needs to act in concert with heavyweights like Google, Facebook and other internet firms to counter these trends in unity. Initiatives like automated-fact checking, suppression of fake news and standardized routines for covering presidential Tweets are positive steps, and should be encouraged. But a new more permanent strategy between tech and journalism is needed. One should also consider to what extent government cyber security efforts should be involved in this alliance. The internet should not be subject to censorship. But there is a dire need for firmer control mechanisms to counter lies and detect manipulative practices. Unrelenting forces are seeking to exploit these flaws for their own ends.
These challenges are not insurmountable. But they could be. We have already experienced a steep downward trend in a relatively short time – first and foremost an increase of falsehoods domestically, but also from abroad. These parallel attacks on our public discourse might be different in execution and based on unique motivations. But their success depends on the power of social media. Over time it leads to an inflation of lies that risks numbing us all to the point of apathy – when everyone has a distinct set of (alternative) facts, politics becomes a zero-sum game of winners and losers. And while this might spur short-term victories for demagogues like Trump, the long-term effects favour no one but those lenient to Putin’s ways.