The indictment last February of 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 US Election prompted further reports discussing how ‘fake news’ is being weaponized to manipulate political processes by taking advantage of the lack of governance within social media. The CBC (Brown, 2018) published an article in March about a young journalist, Vitaly Bespalov, who came to be employed in what has been referred to as ‘the troll factory’ in St. Petersburg, officially known as the Internet Research Agency. This former political Internet troll reported that he left the organization after a few months upon the realization his job only entailed creating offensive content for the global online political sphere and more specifically to manipulate political affairs in Ukraine.
So, what is an Internet troll? An Internet troll is someone who browses the web seeking opportunities to question, mock, or attack others on social media and online forums. In general, trolls are assumed to simply be bored users hoping to cause friction in online discussions. However, a political Internet troll has become something of a profession, their role being the creation of fake news that will reinforce ideological action in the real world political sphere via social media, weaponizing this content for political ends (Brewster, 2018). With this comes greater responsibility as media literacy becomes increasingly important to aid in distinguishing between genuine news reporting and clickbait fake news.
Fake news enables manipulation of the democratic process by integrating itself within social media and Web 2.0’s clickbait culture. With social media’s integrated structures for dissemination as well as their algorithmic enclaves, political trolls acting for larger stakeholders can coerce the public. While partisan messages in media do not necessarily cause political polarization, one sided messages can amplify it (Prior, 2013, 101). Also problematical is how the segmentation of people into filter bubbles and echo chambers allows fake news to be targeted at audiences who match the tone of the content being released.
These platforms are not easily governed, therefore cyber defenses cannot correct these issues according to John Turnbull, a former Canadian electronic warfare specialist (Brewster, 2018). Therefore, the responsibility falls to the social media platforms to monitor content that threatens the political sphere through fake news. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has noted he considers Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as being responsible for managing the fake news or possibly being subjected to federal regulations. This may set a precedence for other social media platforms to pre-emptively consider implementing regulation tools for filtering out fake news.
Clickbait fake news exploiting algorithmic enclaves on social media is effectively distorting the virtual public sphere’s perception of politics. Media illiterate users who do not pursue further knowledge than what is exposed to them enable fake news to be a genuinely efficient means of manipulating political discourse. Lack of thorough research by users and lack of governance by operating systems will enable the weaponization of news and its interference in global affairs and foreign politics.
Justin Trudeau proposing possible regulations sets expectations for Facebook to implement filtration systems for fake news. This can then act as a precedent to progressively discuss international organizations making amendments to global regulation to minimize flaws in social media’s defense against weaponized information pre-emptively. More so, with broader global awareness of the threat to the political process, global governance to limit exposure to fake news could become a common, but perhaps difficult goal.
This is especially true when considering state involvement in the creation of fake news relating to foreign politics. In this instance Russia’s Internet Research Agency acting as a medium to force weaponized news into the filter bubbles of pertinent social media users who would best respond to the extreme, one-sided information they are already mainly exposed to.
The segmentation of the digital public into filter bubbles and echo chambers generates a culture that thrives on selective exposure and thereby can be easily manipulated. Users operate within a narrow window of information that is made enticing to stimulate clickbait engagement. With the application of clickbait to fake news, digital forums are at risk of no longer being just a traditional public sphere, but rather a means of using coercive behaviour to take advantage of minimally governed, sometimes anonymous platforms to manipulate news to benefit a group’s political agenda.
by Courtney Trim
Brewster, M. (2018, March 4). Is Canada’s democracy ready for a dire new age of weaponized news? Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/political-warfare-russia-hacks-1.4560505
Brown, C. (2018, March 7). Putin was ‘good’ and Obama was ‘bad’: Former Russian trolls reveal online work to create ‘fake news’. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/russia-trolls-internet-fake-news-1.4562526
Prior, M. (2013). Media and Political Polarization. Solutions to Political Polarization in America,16(1), 101-117. doi:10.1017/cbo9781316091906.013