Steve Dempsey: Real solutions to fake news?
Politicians spotted the potential of social media to court constituents years ago. Now they're realising the same platforms that can help to get them elected can also promote disinformation and undermine trust in institutions, democracy and the press.
It's not just a big problem for the political classes. It's big business. A recent report from the Oxford Internet Institute estimates that governments and political parties have spent $500m (€431m) on the development and implementation of psychological operations and public opinion manipulation on social channels since 2010.
The study is called Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation.
It found that the number of countries where organised social media manipulation takes place is on the rise - 48 countries this year, up from 28 last year. It also found at least one political party or government agency using social media to manipulate domestic public opinion in each country.
Samantha Bradshaw is one of the report's authors. "Social media is easily exploitable because of the principles of the free flow of information, the ability to transmit messages at such a low cost," she says. "Plus there is the anonymity factor. You don't always know where the information is coming from. With previous propaganda campaigns by the Russia and the US in the Cold War, you knew where those messages were coming from. Now it's not so clear."
The research shows how different countries have different capacities in terms of the cyber troops that can be mobilised to sow social confusion. Cyber troops sound ominous, but the term covers governments or political agents who manipulate public opinion online. The study notes that political parties are increasingly hiring PR firms or data analytics companies to spread disinformation, launch a political bot or trolling campaigns, game search results and spread voter suppression messages. The countries with the best-resourced cyber troops are China, Israel, Russia, UAE, and the United States.
The threat of misinformation social media - and chat apps, which have also emerged as a new trend - is now a significant concern for governments around the world. Since 2016, over 30 countries have taken legislative steps to combat fake news on the Internet. But according to Bradshaw they've been slow to do so.
"Brexit was one of those early warning signs where there was evidence of actors exploiting these platforms and technologies in ways that they shouldn't have been," she says. "During Brexit we saw lots of fake accounts amplifying the 'Leave' messages, we saw a lot of advertisements that were micro-targeting people with very polarising messages. And we also saw illegal spending on ads on social media. It should have been a wake-up call for regulators to say we need to start thinking about how social media plays out in elections and what the rules should be for politicians who want to use this technology to campaign."
But there's still no consensus on policies that could limit technology companies' potential to damage democracy. Ahead of the US midterms, US Senate Intelligence Committee vice-chairman Mark Warner has produced a white paper that outlines how social media and technology firms could be regulated to protect consumers and prevent interference in elections.
The suggested policy approaches include ensuring that bots and fake accounts are clearly and conspicuously labelled, making platforms liable for defamation, making platforms show users the monetary value of their data and GDPR-like data protection legislation.
In the UK, the select committee for digital, culture, media and sport, has recommended that Ofcom's standards for TV and radio broadcasters are applied to online content. However, they also pointed out that the complex, global nature of regulating online platforms calls for something more than the current 'outmoded legislative instruments'.
Closer to home, Fianna Fail's Timmy Dooley this week unveiled a proposal that would see a 6pc levy on digital advertising - effectively a tax on Facebook and Google's revenues - to support print journalism.
It's unclear what the ideal approach is, or even if there is one. But let's be clear, some form of regulation is needed. We can't realistically expect platforms to regulate themselves. With great reach comes great responsibility. And without some legislative checks and balances, social media giants socialise the risks associated with data collection at scale and privatise all the gains.
Sunday Indo Business