Social media has proved an essential tool for catalyzing political activism and social change around the world. Yet, the very features that make it so useful to those with greater-good intentions—scalability, mobility, and low costs to entry—also make it prone to manipulation by malign actors who use it to spread disinformation and divisive rhetoric. These bad actors looking to sway public opinion include both fringe groups and well-funded, highly staffed government institutions. With the US presidential election approaching, voters and policymakers are rightly concerned with what should be done to mitigate the flurry of fake news stemming from beyond the border.
In this new series, experts give their quick responses to five questions about the most important news of the day.
What should the United States be most concerned about regarding possible meddling by Russia in US elections?
Jesse Driscoll: I think three things are pretty concerning. First, it’s concerning that the kinds of interventions we have evidence of can easily be “up-scaled” without necessarily violating laws. Second, I find it concerning that the Russian government is so entrepreneurial about identifying polarizing issues that do not seemingly have anything to with US-Russia policy—suggesting they may be fine-tuning models of voter turnout suppression that could induce disgust and be micro-targeted. Third, and most importantly, I think it’s clear that Russia is just experimenting. It’s easy to imagine other countries doing more, with more resources, in the near future.
The African continent will see two dozen elections in 2019. While many observers herald this year’s surfeit of political contests as a sign post of the “Third Wave of Democratization,” others are less optimistic, noting the violence that often accompanies putatively democratic elections across the continent. Indeed, the causes and consequences of electoral violence in Africa are currently at the fore of work in both academic and policy circles. And the focus on electoral violence is warranted—in 2019 alone, violence has marred the political process in countries as diverse as Senegal, Nigeria, and Malawi, among others.
The United States needs to safeguard the democratic process against foreign interference. It should ensure both the technical integrity of the voting system and that voters are not subjected to foreign influence operations that violate campaign laws.
Disinformation and distrust online are set to take a turn for the worse. Rapid advances in deep-learning algorithms to synthesize video and audio content have made possible the production of “deep fakes”—highly realistic and difficult-to-detect depictions of real people doing or saying things they never said or did. As this technology spreads, the ability to produce bogus yet credible video and audio content will come within the reach of an ever-larger array of governments, nonstate actors, and individuals. As a result, the ability to advance lies using hyperrealistic, fake evidence is poised for a great leap forward.