Canada, perceiving foreign interference in its October general elections, floats the idea of government regulations. Social media companies must be seen to do more, lest they face similar regulations across the world.
In May 2017, it emerged that Facebook was a key influencer in the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit vote, according to those who ran the campaigns. It has become clear that social media has helped enable the spread of misinformation. Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter have recently been grappling with how they should address the rise of “fake news” online. The spread of fake news through social media platforms, especially during an ongoing election cycle is of particular concern to the democratic process. Those in charge of these digital campaigns believe that the social network was decisive in both wins. In recent years, social media, in general, has come under scrutiny for hate campaigns and terrorist propaganda, the presence of bots, and the proliferation of so-called fake news ahead of elections.
Since the start of 2018, Facebook has committed to making significant changes to its platform. In a post on his page on the social network, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the website was making too many errors enforcing policies and preventing misuse of its tools. Mr. Zuckerberg has recently called for more active government action in order to stem the flow of misinformation and restricted content.
Canada’s cabinet minister responsible for ensuring fair electoral processes for October’s general elections has said that social media companies have not done enough to convince Canada of their efforts to fight foreign interference. Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said that Canada’s spy agencies had warned that it was very likely that foreign actors will meddle in Canadian elections. The sentiment echoed earlier statements by Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, that said that there “have probably already been efforts by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy.”
Mrs. Gould said that Facebook, Twitter and Google should help safeguard Canada’s electoral process by helping promote transparency, authenticity and integrity across their platforms. She called for concerted efforts to counter malicious cyber activity, including the spread of disinformation. However, Mrs. Gould highlighted her disappointment that the companies were rolling out changes in a slow manner and were largely hesitant to engage with government concerns. She said, “The platforms feel this is something they should be doing on their own and I don’t have the confidence that they’re disclosin g everything with us.” Mrs. Gould floated the idea of government regulations in order to police the content hosted on these platforms.
Shortly after the comments, Facebook announced that it would ban a number of individuals and groups that it believed were inciting hatred, including the Aryan Strikeforce and the Wolves of Odin. Google also said it was seeking greater cooperation with Canada’s government. Previously, Google had said that it would ban political advertising on its platform in the months leading up to the elections. Facebook, for its part, said that it would require advertisers to validate their identities before election-related material was published.
However, the moves by social media giants are unlikely to placate the concerns of Canada’s government, especially given that the instituted countermeasures do not address issues such as disinformation. The proliferation of misinformation by nefarious actors on social media platforms is precisely what concerns many democratic governments around the world. In order to placate the fears of misinformation, especially in regards to its effects on the electoral process, social media giants must seek to reduce the harmful effects of social echo-chambers and stifle the exponential spread of sensationalist, disinformation campaigns, while simultaneously ensuring the primacy of freedoms of speech and expression.
Our assessment is that unless social media companies make concerted efforts to change their modus operandi, governments, especially democracies, are likely to curb the influence of social media through regulations and laws in an attempt to hedge against foreign interference in borderless cyberspace. We believe that while the actions were undertaken by Facebook, Google and Twitter are steps in the right direction, it is simply not enough to placate such fears. We believe greater scrutiny is to be placed on the activities of the groups, and while their social importance is unlikely to diminish, other issues such as privacy and security will exacerbate the issue. We believe that Mr. Zuckerberg’s commitment to change does not account for the potential need to revamp Facebook’s entire business model. We believe social media giants, given the services they provide, have a responsibility to reduce the harmful effects of social echo-chambers and stifle the exponential spread of disinformation campaigns, while simultaneously ensuring the primacy of freedoms of speech and expression.
The impact of social media on elections can be clearly seen on India’s 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Twitter and Facebook are estimated to have taken down a million pages in an attempt to ensure compliance with national regulations. These elections serve as an appropriate litmus test for the ability of social media giants to tackle the issues posed by their services, particularly in comparison with the previous Lok Sabha elections.
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