Just a few years ago, Facebook and Twitter were hailed as tools for democracy activists, enabling movements like the Arab Spring to flourish. Today, the tables have turned as fears grow over how social media may have been manipulated to disrupt the US election, and over how authoritarian governments are using the networks to clamp down on dissent. The latest revelations from Facebook and Twitter, which acknowledged that Russian-backed entities used their network to spread disinformation and sow political discord, have heightened concerns about the impact of social networks on democracy. “Both services are ripe for abuse and manipulation by all sorts of problematic people, including hostile intelligence services,” says Andrew Weisburd, a non-resident fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
The Alliance, a project created this year to counter what it claims are efforts by Russia undermine democracy and democratic institutions, includes US and European researchers worried about Moscow’s efforts.
“What we have seen from the Kremlin in recent years is a direct by-product of what they have done to the Russian people in order to keep (President Vladimir) Putin and his cronies in power,” Weisburd said.
Researcher Tim Chambers writes in a paper for the left-leaning New Policy Institute that the proliferation of political “bots” or automated accounts to make topics go “viral” such as those employed in 2016 are dangerous for elections and democracy “They fake petition signatures. They skew poll results and recommendation engines,” Chambers said.