A Computational Tool for Social Control

We once celebrated the fact that social media let us express ourselves, share content, and personalize our media consumption. It is certainly difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without acknowledging that social media platforms allowed democracy advocates to coordinate themselves in surprising new ways: to send their demands for political change cascading across North Africa and the Middle East (Howard & Hussain, 2013). But the absence of human editors in our news feeds also makes it easy for political actors to manipulate social networks. In previous research conducted by the Computational Propaganda Project, we found rather paradoxical evidence of the chilling effect of social media on freedom of speech and political participation. Half of Russian Twitter conversations involve highly automated accounts that actively shape online discourses (Sanovich, 2018). In Brazil, both professional trolls and bots have been used aggressively to drown out minority and dissenting opinions during three presidential campaigns, one presidential impeachment campaign, and the major race for the Mayor of Rio (Arnaudo, 2018). Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike (Howard & Woolley, 2016).

The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018 (PDF) .