World Affairs

Is Social Media a Dangerous Force Against Democracy?

August 6, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full Hurst Lecture Series conversation on social media’s role in public diplomacy.

Social media and other digital information tools have had a chilling effect on democracy in some troubled parts of the world, according to a panel of public diplomacy experts speaking at the Aspen Institute as part of the Hurst Lecture Series.

Twitter and Facebook have largely been seen as positive vehicles of change since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution highlighted the widespread use of social media during the greater Arab Spring to gather and inform citizen protesters.

But the power of digital media has also been harnessed by strongmen and terrorists to control information and steer mass thinking, according to the panel, which featured Aspen Institute Trustee and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Goldman Sachs Foundation President Dina Powell, and US State Department Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel and former State Department senior innovation advisor Alec Ross.

Nowhere has that strategy been more effective than in Russia, said Ross, who was senior advisor for innovation at the State Department when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Four years ago, recognizing that his country was way behind the United States in terms of digital platforms, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent a couple hundred million dollars on a “behemoth” digital information system, which has become a “truly effective propaganda machine,” the result of which is that people throughout Europe believe that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, said Ross.

“State power is being undone by [digital] networks to a degree which was previously not thought possible.”
— Alec Ross

“Every single day they’re working with an incredible amount of focus and aggression,” he continued. “This is no longer the world of white men in white shirts and red ties politely discussing the affairs of state over cups of tea. This is really nasty, hard stuff and it informs how the world views the United States. State power is being undone by networks to a degree which was previously not thought possible.”

Stengel echoed the sentiment that social media and digital platforms have completely changed public diplomacy. Governments now have to deal with vast amounts of horizontal (people-to-people) communication, which is largely leaderless and can spread widely so quickly — and thus is nearly impossible to predict, much less control. Calling it an “information battlefield,” Stengel saw Russia’s annexation of Crimea as part of “the power and comprehensiveness of the Russian machine on social media.”

Aside from Russia, Stengel has seen this strategy used to great effect in the Middle East, where ISIS’ sophisticated and widespread use of social media and Web propaganda has worked very much in the group’s favor. Another example is Iran, where the dissent movement is far weaker now because the country’s leaders recognized the power of social networks and the need to take them over. Some 43 countries have narrowed freedoms of late, said Stengel, diminishing democracy around the world.

And while technology was originally seen as a positive force for globalization, the opposite has happened in some cases, creating the “dangerous force” of nationalism, said Albright.

Leaderless revolutions have largely been a problem for public diplomacy.

“People feel lost, and they’re grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups,” Albright said. “And when you hate the people next door, it’s contradictory to globalization. In Russia, Putin has focused on bringing the glory back to Russia.”

But it’s important to remember that social media itself is value-neutral, said Ross. “It amplifies the existing sociologies on the ground and can be harnessed to serve different ends,” he said.

According to Ross, social media has had three broad effects:

  1. Accelerated movements
  2. Enriched the information environment
  3. Created largely leaderless movements

The Middle East revolutions, for example, were not Twitter or Facebook revolutions, said Ross. “People revolted due to lack of economic opportunity, democratic opportunities, frustration with ruling families, and frustration with high food prices,” he said. “But the difference between a world with the proliferation of digital tools and the world five years ago without them is that people were able to shape those things.”

Leaderless revolutions have largely been a problem for public diplomacy, said Albright.

“The thing we haven’t figured out is how do you get from Tahrir Square to governance,” said Albright. “So the Muslim Brotherhood was elected because they were organized and others were not. When you’re not in control of all the technology and how to make it work on our behalf, you’re the victim of ungovernable times. We’re operating in a rudderless world and the various tools we have are not working properly.”

But, there have always been new ways of communication to contend with, said Albright, who gave as an example the cassette recordings of Polish solidarity leader Lech Walesa’s speeches that were spread from factory to factory. So technology can very much be democratizing, she added. “The question is how we can use technology to increase the democratizing governance aspect instead of dealing with the fact that people often have the wrong information,” she said. “The challenge is huge.”

Looking at the bigger picture, said Stengel, “with people communicating horizontally, the trend line toward increasing freedom and democracy is there.” What that means, however, is that there has to be constant engagement by the American government, a policy which US Secretary of State John Kerry has embodied, he added.

Ross gave an example of the positive impact of digital communication during his tenure in the State Department. He was sent to Mexico along with a team of private sector volunteers to see if anything could be done to battle the drug cartels with technology. People were being impeded from reporting violent crimes to the police, he said, so the team developed a system whereby citizens could send secure, encrypted text messages to report crimes or information about cartel members to authorities. Recently, two cartel leaders were taken down due to anonymous reports, he said.

“Sometimes, it’s a very long-term investment,” said Powell, whose family is originally from Egypt. Powell said that the real work is in investing in the people of the Arab world, where economic and equal opportunities for women and minorities are low, and figuring out “what is happening within those societies that breeds such hatred and such lack of hope in the future.”

The information control that some of the world’s strongmen and terrorist groups have on people is tenuous, said Ross. The digital world is still relatively new, and for the most part, “when young people come to more power, we will have more open societies. If you look at this over decades, I think it will be very positive globally.”