On March 4, Secretary General of the Annan Commission and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University Steve Stedman visited USC to discuss the recent findings of the Annan Commission on electoral security in the digital age.
The commission looked at several claims that had been made about social media’s impact on politics and elections. While it is said that social media may create echo chambers that cause polarization within society and creates distrust between people, government, and institutions, their study found that this was not necessarily true. The commission found little evidence that social media causes polarization.
In their findings, they found that a country with pre-existing division and high levels of distrust are very vulnerable to worsening levels of polarization resulting from social media.
The U.S. is the primary example of this; similar in its displays of polarization are countries such as Brazil, Hungary, and Poland. The commission also found no evidence that echo chambers create and foster polarization when individuals are online. They commission, however, found it more likely for individuals to find people and exposure to people they disagree with online than in their actual life, where it is easy to be surrounded by like-minded people.
While it is possible to fall into an echo chamber, individual cases are a much more controlled and smaller part of the population.
However, the commission did find it clear that social media can be weaponized to sow discord and distrust within societies by those who wish to weaken or threaten democracies and elections. Misinformation strategically spread and hate speech can be used as tools to threaten elections. The Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, for example, took pre-existing divisions between groups and made them worse through misinformation on social media.
Stedman made clear that the threat to democracies is not uniquely an American issue. The commission actively looked at the transnational industry of misinformation that impacts several countries in the Global South such as Brazil, Indonesia, and India.
Any country with preexisting polarization and societal divisions is susceptible to misinformation and interference, and they predict that the Global South, in particular, will be a target in the coming years for interference. Stedman believes that international norms must be created to protect the integrity of these upcoming and future elections.
The commission also found that there are vulnerabilities to both the hardware and software aspects of elections in the digital age. Even if hacking is not entirely successful, the suspicion can create distrust in voters’ minds and undermine election legitimacy.
The commission also provided potential prescriptions and policies for countries to consider to protect the integrity of their elections. A key point of tension is the culpability of platforms in regulating and taking responsibility for hate speech and misinformation spread by users. A major solution offered by the commission is for platforms to develop a pledge promising not to use misinformation that politicians sign before paying platforms to spread political advertisements. If the politician breaks this pledge then the platform holds the right to take down any advertisements.
While this potential path to mitigate the spread of misinformation on social media, the future is often hard to predict and the balance between regulation and freedom is challenging to get right. Stedman predicts that the U.S. will only face more polarization and division as the nation approaches Election Day in November 2020.