Are you overwhelmed by social media being in the limelight of politics? The odds are that you are.

However, before closing your accounts to avoid the seemingly non-stoppable ‘keyboard-warriors’ and ‘electoral wise trolls’, think it twice. Statically, you are most probably part of the 2/3 of netizens living in a country with not-free or partially-free Internet.

The 2017 Freedom on the Net report points out multiple ways, and global examples, by which social media manipulation and disinformation weakens digital-democracy. Particularly, during elections. Here, we sum up some of the key findings and recommendations to tackle the issue.

The Freedom House’s study, conducted in 65 countries, covers 87 percent of the world’s internet users. Unfortunately, the conclusions are not encouraging. Net freedom has declined for the seventh consecutive year, and governments’ digital controls have stepped up (in more than half of the countries assessed). “For the third consecutive year, China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.”

Manipulation of social media with automated bots and armies of paid commentators or trolls, together with the creation and diffusion of fake news, have become critical techniques for undermining democratic participation online. What is worse, such tools can play a challenging role in elections by affecting political campaigns, voters’ decision-making process and Electoral Management Bodies (EMB)’s work.

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Spotting threats during elections

  • According to Freedom House, elections in 18 nations held in 2016 during the last year, were influenced by online disinformation campaigns.
  • Fake news were distributed around elections or referendums in at least 16 of the 65 countries assessed. “While fake news sites are not new, they are being used with increasing sophistication for political purposes.”
  • 19 out of 65 countries tracked had at least one network shutdown (intentional restrictions on connectivity). “Mobile shutdowns have also been deployed to stifle opposition groups during contentious elections periods.”
  • The online discourse was influenced by governments, bots and paid opinion formers.
  • Manipulation and disinformation tactics damaged citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.
  • Malicious bots were used for hacking, spamming, stealing content, and impersonating humans in public discussions about elections, candidates, and political participation in general.

There might be hope

The recommendations and solutions proposed by Freedom House to combat social media manipulation and disinformation during elections include a variety of steps. Among them, educating users, raising public awareness, demanding more cooperation from tech giants, and monitoring countries’ policy-making on e-democracy and political participation.

Not only from an individual point of view but a more state-wide -or even regional- perspective, there are fundamental goals to be achieved in this regard during elections.

For instance, it could help building large-scale programmes and public education to show people how to spot fake or misleading news and commentary.

Also, putting tight controls on political adverts and making social media private companies commit to removing bots and re-examining algorithms (for strengthening real and democratic discussions.) Finally, tracking your country’s Internet freedom and policy-making on digital democracy could lead to improving the transparency and efficiency of elections.

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