The buzz around the ballot

The swift growth of social media took revenue from traditional media outlets and exposed societies to pure political propaganda

WOJCIECH PRZYBYLSKI
7 December 2017

This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.

Every period in history has its jokes including the Post-truth era. This one has been told following the occupation of Crimea: if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and denies it’s a duck, it’s a Russian duck. In truth, our duck does not quack – it tweets!

The acronym of the Russian IRA stands today for a new kind of terrorist organisation – the Internet Research Agency (AKA the troll factory) whose operations were recently revealed in relation to the electoral campaign in the USA.

What makes the Russian fake-news campaign so successful? It appears that the contemporary masters of lies the IRA are able to considerably influence the global democratic process. Is it due to their strength or more due to our weakness?

The latter explanation makes more sense. During the recent digital revolution – a rapid process that had a vast impact on our societies, we let hostile scouts take over part of our domestic electoral agenda.

This autumn, Twitter’s self-audit revealed that nearly half of the American population has been exposed to this Russian campaign of hate and fake-news. The goal, apparently, was not only to have Donald Trump elected but to polarise the American society. The IRA sponsored both radicalism of the right and of the left. But why was it possible in the first place?

Two particular developments revived this mass scale disinformation. First – the 2008 financial crisis that struck down traditional media all across the world, and second – the rapid growth of social media. Capitalism and the internet, neither one a Russian invention, quickly became the new weapons of the information age.

Central Europe, in many ways, has become more exposed than the USA or other EU partners. The swift growth of social media took revenue from traditional media outlets and exposed societies to pure political propaganda. Editorial oversight, often referred to as gatekeeping, no longer safeguards social media followers and friends from direct exposure to divisive practices. As a reaction, Facebook introduced its own editorial oversight that was revealed earlier this year, but it might not have been soon enough for countries that had already been heavily exposed.

As we show, compared to Germany, in 2017 more people in the V4 (+10%) prefer and have trust in so-called “alternative media” than in mainstream outlets. Trust in mainstream media is further undermined by poor business models that are not catching up with the quickly growing digital advertising market.

In the Post-truth era, the fourth estate of democracy, counting social media in, has become a challenge to democracy. To build up democratic, resilience let’s start with resilience of quality media.

 

Wojciech Przybylski – Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight, President of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw

 

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