Worth Noting, by Bill Wanlund: Skeptical Audiences and Bad Actors

Perhaps still pained by the impact of social media-enabled fake news on our politics, we Americans are skeptics about the value of social media to democracy.  

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 19 advanced economies and published last month found that only about a third (34%) of Americans believe that social media has been good for our democracy, while 64% believe the effect has been negative.  In comparison, Pew’s surveys found that, overall, 57% of those surveyed think that social media has been beneficial to their democracies [at 76 %, Singapore tops the list of believers], 35% feel it’s had a bad effect [France and The Netherlands, each around 40%, joined the US at the bottom].  A 2018 Pew survey of 11 emerging economies turned up similar results.

Majorities in both surveys believe that social media make people more vulnerable to manipulation by false information and rumors.  Eighty-five percent of Americans felt that way, just above the median for advanced economies (84%) and substantially above the 72% median registered by emerging economies.

Read Pew’s detailed comparative analysis of the two surveys here.

Meanwhile, a new report by Graphika – a New York City-based social media analytics firm – and the Stanford [University] Internet Observatory might help explain Americans’ wariness about the political influence of social media.  The report, titled “Bad Reputation,” declares that “Suspected Russian actors have leveraged alternative social media platforms [specifically, Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Truth Social] to target alt-right U.S. audiences with divisive political narratives to a greater extent than previously known,” up to and including the 2022 midterm elections.

The report says, “Due to an apparent lack of enforcement, the actors have established a degree of persistence [on these platforms] unavailable on most mainstream platforms and are able to conduct their operations with relative ease.”  These suspected Russian actors, according to the report, “largely operated in an echo chamber of highly-dense overlapping follower relationships on fringe platforms…(but) also experienced moments of significant ‘break out,’ when content created by the actors was amplified organically to large audiences on mainstream social media platforms.”

“Bad Reputation” also found evidence that actors are using networks of fake personas to undercut US support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. “In addition to posting about U.S. politics, the operation notably focuses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Content shared by the accounts is uniformly supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin while seeking to undermine U.S. public support for Ukraine and portray President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a far-right extremist who is embezzling money sent by Western allies.”

There’s a fair amount of jargon in this report, but it’s easily unraveled, and it’s accompanied by impressive documentation.  Read “Bad Reputation” here.
Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and addresses topics hopefully of interest to PDCA members.