Lying in politics is nothing new. And while state and political actors have always enjoyed an outsized influence on public discourse, the digital age provides an abundance of new tools for these actors to magnify their voices in unprecedented ways. Across the globe, these actors are leveraging the advantages of social media to disseminate disinformation for the purpose of improperly manipulating public opinion.
The hyper-focus on the responsibilities of individual platforms to moderate content distracts from the reality that an alarming proportion of disinformation is created by domestic state and political actors for the purpose of fostering ill informed electorates.
The Increasing Danger of Online Disinformation From State and Political Actors is a Global Problem
In its 2020 Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation, the Oxford Internet Institute found significant evidence that major governments and political parties across the globe are using social media to disseminate disinformation, and that social media manipulation of public opinion is an increasing threat to democratic order. Among the Institute’s findings was that seventy-six countries used disinformation and media manipulation to mislead social media users and that disinformation on social media has become a common strategy for political communication in the majority of countries studied, including the US and many European countries. In its Freedom on the Net 2019 report, Freedom House emphasised that governments are increasingly using social media to improperly influence elections and monitor their citizens. Freedom House further cautions that democracies are employing mass surveillance tools on social media platforms without adequate safeguards for civil liberties.
One of the reasons that social media is such a popular forum for disinformation is that it is both efficient and effective. A 2018 study by researchers at MIT found that online, lies travel significantly “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” particularly in the context of political news. Social media also enables purveyors of disinformation to target messages with more precision than is possible with traditional media. As highlighted by those researching disinformation surrounding Brexit and the 2019 UK election, another advantage of social media is that disinformation is subject to less scrutiny, as the traditional media is unable to effectively perform its gatekeeping function, which includes filtering information through professional editing and fact checking.
The European Commission describes large-scale disinformation campaigns as a major challenge for Europe. Perhaps the worst EU Member State in terms of domestic disinformation is Hungary. According to Oxford researchers, the Hungarian government has been running ongoing disinformation campaigns since 2019. These campaigns involve spreading far-right stereotypes on every distribution channel available to the government, including social media. However, the problem of domestic disinformation from state actors in the EU is not limited to weakened democracies. For example, in 2020, Oxford researchers found that computational propaganda is a widespread tactic amongst multiple actors in the British political system.
The problem of domestic disinformation from state and political actors is also a major challenge to American democracy. Following the 2020 presidential election, it became clear that the Republican Party is using disinformation as a political strategy for the purpose of misinforming the public on vital issues of public concern. Polling suggests that this strategy is working. Notwithstanding the lack of any credible evidence of widespread voter fraud in the American electoral system, polling conducted between 25 February and 1 March 2021 revealed that nearly sixty-five percent of Republicans reported believing President Biden’s victory was due to voter fraud and twenty-nine percent reported that they will never accept Biden as President. A Harvard study released just prior to the November 2020 election found that then President Trump, with what appeared to be the coordinated support of the Republican National Committee, waged a six-month institutionalised disinformation campaign for the purpose of undermining the public’s faith in the integrity of the 2020 election. Former President Trump – who will almost certainly run for president in 2024 – remains a dangerous source of domestic disinformation, and Republican legislators are using disinformation as a pretext for, among other things, introducing an unprecedented number of bills directed to making it more difficult for Americans to vote.
We Ignore Domestic Disinformation from State and Political Actors at our Peril
Increasing pressure from governments on social media platforms to aggressively root out and remove disinformation from private actors ignores the reality that so much of this extreme speech derives from within governments. While the role of social media in magnifying and disseminating disinformation is a necessary part of the broader conversation regarding the challenges posed by extreme speech in the digital age, a hyper-focus on the responsibilities of individual platforms distracts from the reality that an alarming proportion of disinformation directed to domestic issues is created and disseminated by states rather than from private or foreign actors. It also allows governments to use the dangers of extreme speech as a justification for more onerous regulations that impact freedom of expression and other fundamental rights while side-stepping their own complicity in such problems.
Perhaps most importantly, a preoccupation with the responsibilities of platforms distracts from the fact that governments are using social media platforms to disseminate disinformation for the purpose of fomenting ill informed electorates. In healthy democracies, free speech serves to strengthen democracy by facilitating an informed populace and fostering a strong press that holds the government to account. The widespread use of domestic disinformation by state and political actors is a growing threat to the liberal democratic order. Ill-informed and improperly manipulated electorates are making decisions at the ballot box that will shape the political landscape of liberal democracies for generations to come. Thus, domestic disinformation from state and political actors must form an integral part of the discourse regarding the appropriate limits on free speech in the digital age.
Eliza Bechtold, Teaching Fellow, School of Law, University of Aberdeen