Fake news could be one of the most potentially harmful things to democracy. With the presence of social media platforms growing more and more within the field of politics each day, there has undoubtedly been a growing number of fake news accounts popping up on social media. Social media has become plagued with bot accounts. Meaning, that these accounts are run by computer systems. And, they are usually used in order to promote extremist political views.
Catching these bot accounts is not easy, either. They are starting to imitate what accounts run by real humans look like more and more. Typically, online bots use pictures of young girls as their profile pictures, and post concentrated content, mostly just political with no posts about their social life. Go through your followers on social media after reading this. How many of the people following you could be online bots?
There are also numerous types of bots online other than social media bots as well. Download bots try to find vulnerable spots in your software to download your information and put harmful viruses onto your software. Spam bots are designed to literally spam you with certain types of content, whether it be ads or viruses (Imperva). Bots are typically bought by governments or parent companies in order to scan the web and personal software in order to do their specific jobs.
And most importantly, these bots are one of the main reasons that so much fake news and disinformation is spreading so heavily around social media. Social media bots typically take on the persona of someone heavily affiliated with extremist political views, whether they be republican or democratic. People stumbling across accounts such as these with little or no information on social bots may believe that these are real people and believe their misinformation to be factual.
One of the most recent examples of these social media bots is the bots pretending to be black, pro-Trump voters that have rampaged on Twitter. Just recently, Twitter has taken to blocking dozens of these fake accounts. According to numerous sources (Washington Post, BBC) an investigation into these accounts showed that they all post similar pro-Trump messages and used photos of real black people as profile pictures.
According to BBC, even though these fake accounts have already been removed from Twitter, they have “already had their impact” (BBC, 2020). Thus, lies the issue with fake news and disinformation within social media: the spread of this false information to so many susceptible people, and then having those people believe that false information, and potentially spread it to others.
But where do these bots come from? BBC says that they are mostly sourced from countries such as Russia, who are deliberately trying to stir up political discourse on social media. And its working. Even though these bots were removed by Twitter, hundreds of black Americans have seen the mass amount of these posts, thinking that there are way more black Americans voting for Trump than there actually are. These false accounts can have damaging effects on the polls and the pollical system of America, and other similar countries.
So, why is this issue, and many others like it, such a big issue for democracy? Why are bots pretending to be people on the internet a threat to the government of a democratic state? There are numerous answers, but one of the biggest one is the spread of misinformation to citizens by the government or other governments. This misinformation can influence the way people vote, potentially voting against democracy instead of for it. Social media bots that influence political standings of users and their political views can cause them to vote specific ways, even if it is not the ways that these users were not voting initially before seeing these bot accounts.
In summation, the use of social media bots to influence political standing could potentially lead to voter fraud, as it leads to the voters being influenced on how to vote by the government. This fake news does not allow people to think for themselves. Instead, it is almost as though the government of a state is underlyingly trying to persuade the way people vote by pretending to be average citizens.
So, what can be done to combat these social media bots? Persily and Stamos (2019) talk in depth about how the use of regulations on social media must be prevalent now more than ever. Taking Twitter removing fake black voters as an example, social media companies must create regulations and guidelines in order to protect citizens from this spread of misinformation. While this does bring in issues regarding free speech, governments creating fake accounts to pursued voters is not a problem of free speech. It borders on a problem of voter fraud. It is spreading lies to, in this case, have more minorities voting for Trump.
In conclusion, we must be aware of the things posted on social media. We cannot blindly read things that we see on the internet; instead, we must have a critical thinking regarding what we are reading and what other people are posting. And always be mindful of who you’re following, and who’s following you. They might just be a bot!
It is interesting you claim fake news can lead to voter fraud, as voter fraud is a felony offense and usually carries some connotation of intent. Misinformation on the other hand, tends to be someone falsely believing and potentially falsely voting for something, but not intentionally trying to sway results.
I agree that social media platforms need to be subject to greater regulations, but it is tricky to figure out how much consumers, the platform itself, and the government should shoulder. Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants governments to regulate harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/01/government-regulate-facebook-mark-zuckerberg-social-media) But realistically, how exactly can this be done, even if we had stricter laws? While banning hate speech, and denouncing fake news is a good first step, at the end of the day, the government cannot regulate the internet in its entirety; these accounts can just exist elsewhere and continue to operate. Facebook cannot even regulate its platform in a timely fashion, as evidenced with the recent Kenosha shooting. Also, even though there is proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election though Facebook and other social media sites, there was/is essentially no accountability from the platforms or the international actors to ensure this will not happen again. The government cannot protect citizens from misinformation, especially in today’s age when the president himself constantly disseminates misinformation.
With the continuous presence of these different social media bots, we need to stress individual responsibility that much more. But to do so, we need to find out why people believe certain fake accounts over known reputable sources. Is it a problem of convenience? plausible deniability? linked to education? apathy? It seems too obvious to advise people to critically think about and fact check the information he/she/they are consuming, but clearly there is a problem.
Your post covers a subject that I find very interesting!
One particular sentence stood out to me: “the use of social media bots to influence political standing could potentially lead to voter fraud, as it leads to the voters being influenced on how to vote by the government.” I agree with the previous comment that you seem to confuse voter fraud with voter manipulation. Voter fraud refers to a conscious interference of free and fair elections, taking the form of false registrations, duplicate voting, etc. Despite what Trump says, voter fraud is a rare phenomenon (see here: https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression/myth-voter-fraud). To me it seems like the objective of social media bots isn’t outright interfering in elections, but rather distorting public opinion; bots create the illusion of discourse, amplify certain narratives, and spread false information.
Also, you write that bots have had “their impact”, but how exactly? To what extent do bots actually change public opinion? What factors improve or change their effectiveness? I’m also curious as to how we respond to the evolving nature of bots, both in identifying them and stopping their presence. As technology progresses, it’s becoming harder for humans (and possibly programs?) to detect their presence.
I think this post did a good job illuminating the threat we face in the 21st century with evolving technology, and therefore evolving methods of foreign interference. The use of social media to spread misinformation and disinformation can not be understated at this point in out technological advancements in society. However, how does this social media disinformation lead to further democratic erosion? I believe that these social media attempts, especially those by Russia, were intended to drive Americans apart from one another to create a more polarized society. Polarization erodes democracy by decreasing mutual toleration and decreasing the ability for compromise, something essential to pass meaningful legislature in the American government. What is most surprising to me is the effect it took on people, and how Russia could have known that through this seemingly small tactic, presidential elections could be manipulated. Americans are faced with the hard but truthful question: is social media healthy for our democracy, or does it supply another outlet to spread misinformation and disinformation? Though we assume with more information comes more understand, this has not been proven in the technological 21st century. We are more polarized than ever and hiding behind screens making insults at those of the other party only fuels this. The paradoxical dilemma of more information leading to more disinformation and misinformation proves social media’s harm to democracy. Not all attempts of disinformation and misinformation were by foreign governments. The Washington Post reports on a man who is possibly responsible for many hoax events just to stir tensions between the political parties. This polarized atmosphere causes American democracy to erode further at the hands of social medi
Will Ver Meulen
I very much enjoyed reading your blog post. This topic is all so relevant in the world today and specifically within the United States. One example or area that I have personally noticed to be a large cause for concern is the spread of Fake News/ Misinformation among online users who struggle to operate through the modern world of social media. This is especially the case on platforms like Facebook with specifically older generations of Americans. Unfortunately, some of the older generations have struggled with the rather daunting learning curve that is using technology, and with that do not seem to notice warning signs or misinformation/bots quite like an experienced user. For example, I have witnessed, on numerous occasions, the sharing of Facebook posts that claim to represent certain information or news/facts on a particular subject or current issue. Yet, when I use methods quite like those you have mentioned, warning signs and evidence can be found that determines if the post was either a bot or plain misinformation.
Furthermore, I agree that the use of social media bots has a direct effect on the potential for voter fraud, among other developments. However, one of the major problems that are also a direct result of these bots and how they use misinformation is the spread or furthering of political polarization and even violence/hate. If say, for example, claims on election fraud are produced by a bot, or even a person for that matter, and are completely false, but serve to diminish the trust that some Americans have in the voter system. Then this will ultimately push people further away from each other and severely lower both healthy discourse and trust in our political system. Continuing off of the examples that I have seen specifically with older generations and their reactions to misinformation, I have found a great article that supplements or provides further evidence to this negative development.