There is growing research on how belief in false information can damage democracy by promoting dangerous demagogues. As a response, companies like Facebook and Twitter have been creating new tools to track and flag posts that contain fake news. Nevertheless, this counteraction might create adverse effects, strengthening the subgroup solidarity of would-be autocrat supporters, who claim to be fighting against the censorship of the sociopolitical mainstream. In this way, having flagged or blocked content on social media may bolster the support for dangerous demagogues.
In 2018, then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro shared multiple fake news during the Brazilian election campaign. From claiming that another candidate had created a ‘gay kit’ to change the sexual orientation of students to questioning the fairness of the first round of the election (in which no candidate achieved the overall majority of votes, thus requiring a second round), Bolsonaro made various unfounded statements. In fact, 98% of Bolsonaro supporters encountered fake news against his main opponent, Fernando Haddad. Moreover, 90% of them believed at least one of these false information. In the context of the US, a study found that many American citizens who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but voted for Donald Trump in 2016 believed fake news that favored Trump, which indicates that false information might play a significant role in shaping votes. Although further research is necessary to affirm that fake news cause higher voting for particular candidates, this study is an example of the recent literature on the political importance of fake news.
There are various factors that make social media an appealing vehicle for politicians to spread false information. In 2018, 25 million people around the world started using social media, an increase of 13% from 2017. Additionally, the daily time spent using social media increased 5.5% from 2017 to 2018, averaging over 2 hours. In this way, social media has become ripe for political campaigning, providing a space for visibility without accountability. Under circumstances where campaigning heavily depended on other politicians’ support, prodemocratic political elites could halt the spread of false messages by would-be autocrats more easily by not promoting them in rallies and on information vehicles such as radio and TV . Nowadays, however, antidemocratic candidates can use social media to spread false information massively even without the support of political elites. Moreover, different from a structured political debate, they do not have to respond to any objections to their posts. In this way, these politicians act as dangerous demagogues who strategically use communication to gain compliance and avoid accountability .
A recent study suggests that flagging content with credibility indicators helps counteract the effect of false information on social media, but it points out that further studies are necessary to corroborate and generalize this argument. Activist organizations such as Avaaz urged social media companies to take this and other actions:
How many democracies need to die before Mark Zuckerberg stops this madness of his platforms? … If Silicon Valley would simply delete all fake and imposter social media accounts involved in spreading disinformation, and distribute independent fact-checker corrections to everyone exposed to toxic fake news, it would put a massive dent in this problem.Ricken Patel, Avaaz CEO and Founder
Given the widespread disbelief in social media as a reliable news vehicle — in a report by the Reuters Institute in 2020, only 22% of respondents affirmed to trust news on social media — Facebook affirmed its commitment to combatting disinformation. Famous social media platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook argue that they are fighting the spread of fake news by, for instance, removing or flagging false content with the support of third-party fact-checking organizations.
But are those actions effective in reverting the impact of fake news on political support for demagogues? Another study indicates that simply showing statistical evidence that proves some information to be false is insufficient to counter the effect that these fake news have on voters. However, the study does not explore the impact of detailed fact-checking, which would include a longer analysis of the false information. Thus, even though some social media platforms — like Instagram — already offer a more comprehensive argumentation against false content, extensive research on the effectiveness of this measure in counteracting the influence of fake news still needs to be developed.
Fact-checking might not only be ineffective, but actually strengthen the support for antidemocratic politicians, a third study suggests. A possible explanation for this outcome is that when dangerous demagogues’ social media content is labeled as false information or even deleted, their supporters can claim that fact-checking is a form of censorship, as happened after the flagging of some of Trump’s tweets. Perceiving social media companies as an oppressive opposition, the demagogues’ supporters protest against what they see as unfair advantages to others’ (such as immigrants’ or black people’s) preferences . In this context, demagogues benefit from being flagged by fact-checking mechanisms, as they gain even more admiration from their supporters for successfully inciting reproach by allegedly censorious social media platforms . The deviance from social media norms, then, bolsters subgroup solidarity and improves the demagogue’s prestige . As with the other arguments already presented, further research is necessary to corroborate these claims.
It is necessary to develop and implement more solutions for the problem of false information on social media, specially if regulatory attempts to stop the spread of fake news end up helping antidemocratic demagogues. Some specialists argue that media literacy, for instance, is an important weapon against false information. In recent years, organizations in countries such as the UK and Brazil have been fighting for this cause. Instead of focusing solely on regulating social media content, educating content consumers on how to analyze information might be a better or complementary way of mitigating fake news. More time, efforts, and studies will provide a clearer picture of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of media literacy and fact-checking in counteracting antidemocratic demagogues’ use of social media as a means to strengthen their support.