In international relations, democracies including the United States have long claimed to have several advantages over authoritarian regimes – such as sound governance and effectiveness in wartime – based on the open marketplace of ideas and freedom of expression.
And what could be more open and free – more democratic – than social media?
It’s not that simple, according to Sarah Kreps, the John L. Wetherill Professor of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences. The rise of social media is actually undermining democratic regimes and giving authoritarian regimes the advantage, she argues in “Social Media and International Relations,” a new book in the Cambridge University Press Elements in International Relations series.
“When citizens in the democratic populace turn to the marketplace of ideas, they increasingly confront misinformation, often strategically deployed by foreign actors seeking to exploit polarization in the political landscape and undermine trust in domestic institutions,” she writes.
As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Russian interference in 2016 is still fresh in Americans’ minds. But at least six other countries – China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – have reportedly engaged in large-scale misinformation campaigns across borders, Kreps writes, citing a 2019 Oxford University study. The same study revealed that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns – most of them domestic – has grown to 70, more than doubling over the last two years.
Clearly, social media is an actor in international relations and is here to stay, Kreps writes. In the book, she develops a theoretical framework of social media’s global influence.
Cross-border sabotage of media is nothing new, she writes, but several characteristics of social media make it easier to manipulate than traditional forms.
“First, because it is open access, anyone can post,” she writes. “Second, misinformation spreads faster and further than accurate information because it is often more clever, counterintuitive or provocative. Third, regulation is difficult.”
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, together with fact-checking sites such as Snopes, have developed ways to counteract propaganda at a human scale, but not at a machine-generated scale. Consequently, running a misinformation campaign across international borders is easier and cheaper than defending against one.
Rather than opening or transcending borders, Kreps argues, the internet actually reinforces the strength of the nation state. China, Iran, Russia and North Korea all have networks and laws configured to ensure state sovereignty over internet use. The European Union has drawn a virtual boundary around its member states through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to keep personal data from leaving the EU.
Moreover, social media can be weaponized across borders. In a worst-case scenario, virtual interference could hijack physical systems (military, intelligence or infrastructure), creating a “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack. Much more common – and far more insidious, Kreps writes – is the misuse of social media as a form of information operations, “an open secret that hides in plain sight” that is happening now.
Both governments and social media companies have capability to regulate social media, Kreps writes, but social media platforms evolve at a pace difficult for government regulation to match. And companies cite concerns about limiting free speech. They also have few incentives to moderate content, “since doing so is both costly but also at odds with a business model that favors sensational content that attracts and keeps users online.”
Only a decade into the age of social media, there are more questions than answers, Kreps concludes. How do national security and social media relate? Can we restore trust in media institutions awash in fake news? What new ways will foreign actors exploit the data we continue to pour into online platforms?
“In some ways, it’s like counterterrorism,” she said. “The threat is always evolving and progress is defined by knowing where to look and what questions to ask. We shouldn’t be expecting any ‘mission accomplished’ banners or victory parades.”
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.