Why oppressive regimes succeed on social media

Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran have all used social media platforms to manipulate and influence democratic states and censor their own people.

SOCIAL MEDIA GIANT Twitter (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past year from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that conspiracy theories and misinformation thrive on social media. Although the rise of social media platforms has opened the door to incredible opportunities for connection and seeing outside one’s immediate cultural surroundings; unfortunately, it has also opened up Pandora’s box when it comes to giving autocratic and anti-democratic regimes the keys to newfound methods of manipulation and oppression. The structure of social media networks across the spectrum inadvertently assists anti-democratic regimes, and makes it more difficult for democratic states to control the spirals of sensationalist misinformation.
From antisemitic conspiracies to COVID-19, social media has a misinformation problem and it’s actively contributing to the turmoil and potential downfall of democratic states.
Oppressive regimes such as Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran have all used social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to manipulate and influence democratic states, as well as censor their own populations. While all newspapers and most forms of communication are aimed at influencing public opinion (indeed that’s the very purpose of political campaigns), it becomes much more complicated when there are complex algorithms that make access to accurate information more difficult because the content provided to the users is motivated by what that same user previously “liked” and interacted with.
What happens with social media today is a little bit like what happens when a person becomes addicted to pornography – what was once engaging is no longer stimulating, driving the addict to seek increasingly more extreme stimuli for the same reaction. For that reason, a more extreme version of “clickbait” has been birthed on social media than has ever been seen before. What makes this clickbait worse than traditional press? Access – and with access comes an unprecedented speed of (so-called) information.
This limitless access to information brings self-perpetuating cycles of extremism and allows those with increasingly radical views that aren’t (and shouldn’t be) accepted by mainstream society to find “allies.” Look no further than online pedophile rings, or “communities” which radicalize Muslim youth to join ISIS. Add the fact that the Internet has become a place where many vulnerable youth find solace as they mature, and you have a toxic combination. But beyond the risks for individuals, social media poses a threat to democratic civilization as we know it.
A digital platform that is free for all in real time sounds like a great idea in theory, but the biggest beneficiaries will always be regimes that don’t care about accurate information or free speech, but operate with a clear-cut agenda to maintain power at any cost. For that reason, the odds are stacked against democratic regimes on social media, in favor of oppressive, sensationalist narratives – as we have repeatedly seen from oppressive states as mentioned above. In the week following the initial COVID-19 outbreak, Chinese diplomats and government officials used all social media platforms to push a propaganda campaign smearing the US and claiming the US was behind the coronavirus outbreak – despite the fact that China covered up the initial outbreak and even arrested Chinese whistleblowers.
We’ve seen similar digital patterns from Turkey, which regularly uses bots on Twitter to troll and harass any and all who oppose Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest dictatorial actions. Iran’s leaders, too, while censoring and banning forms of social media within their own borders, are more than happy to spew propaganda talking points to the Western world through their own Twitter accounts. In January 2019, Iran shut off the Internet when faced with widespread anti-regime protests, but Iranian leaders use Twitter themselves to promote their agenda, even when it means calling for the genocide of other states, like Israel.
Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted about the newly implemented US sanctions claiming they were “cruel” and prevented Iranian people from receiving much needed “food and medicine.” No mention of the fact that Iran executes and tortures their own political dissidents, and in fact literally executed one of their champion wrestlers for protesting the regime just a few weeks before. Zarif’s talking point on sanctions was then repeated by none other than US Rep. Ilhan Omar, which is surely what the Iranian regime had hoped for. This ease of access to influence the opinions of the public and reach new audiences, even more so if the information is false or extreme, wouldn’t be possible without social media.
One of the more successful countries at using social media to push a narrative is Qatar, which has managed to deflect almost any awareness or pressure on their regime for their human rights abuses of foreign workers by creating a wildly successful international media conglomerate – Al Jazeera, and all its affiliated networks, such as AJ+. It’s hard not to see the agenda in the narrative of the “news” pieces on AJ+, but they are extremely successful on social media with their slick, short-form video content in different languages on the latest issues of the day.
Only in the last few years, social media networks have begun to crack down on sensationalist news and the organized propaganda campaigns of oppressive regimes, but this simply gives rise to another key issue: who is regulating the social media companies who have suddenly become international arbiters of truth? There is no easy answer, but with the civil unrest in the US and across the Western world (which is in part inspired by sensationalist social media), it’s high time we start looking for solutions to hold social media platforms accountable. Just as with a government body, there must be checks and balances for social media networks as well, due to the far-reaching potential consequences. Not only because of the presence of hate speech or antisemitic content, but also because of how their platforms enable and even advance oppressive regimes.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.