From Prospect’s new cyber supplement—online falsehoods have an even more corrosive effect on democracy than you might thinkby Karin von Hippel and Jonathan Eyal / August 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
So much has been said about the phenomenon of falsehoods peddled online that it’s tempting to conclude that we all understand the problem. And so many intelligence agencies and parliamentary inquiries worldwide have examined the dangers of foreign interference in domestic electoral processes that it’s logical to assume that we either have in place all the defences required, or at least understand what needs to be done. Yet almost every week brings new revelations about just how big the challenge is, and how ill-equipped democracies are to tackle it.
In the first quarter of this year alone, Facebook claims to have removed a staggering 2.19bn fake accounts. So much for its initial argument that the peddling of deliberate falsehoods remains a “marginal” problem.
Far from receding into the known-and-dealt with, the plague of misinformation online is getting worse—along with the plague of extreme right-wing content. A recent investigation by Germany’s Der Spiegel, for instance, concluded that no less than 85 per cent of all content shared on Facebook originating from a German political party is connected to the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD. The accuracy of much of this material cannot be guaranteed, to put it mildly.
The onset of artificial intelligence has already demonstrated that bots and other proxy online actors can mimic actual human behaviour in more realistic ways. Furthermore, the technological ease with which videos can be faked adds another layer of supposed reality to such activities. The more the impact of these operations is studied, the more it becomes clear that, even if they are sometimes amateurish, they do have a serious impact on electoral processes.
The purpose of peddling deliberate political fabrication is not necessarily to persuade people to vote for a specific candidate or party, but rather to destabilise an electoral process or even a country by discrediting political movements, candidates, ideas and structures. Indeed this was likely the ultimate motivation behind Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential contest. Much fake material is also designed to encourage a sense of alienation not only from elected politicians, but from civil servants as well, by suggesting that they can’t act as impartial deliverers of government services.
In that respect, it does not matter if the conspiracy theories peddled online are credible. Quantity here matters far more than quality, and the more such fake…