Troll armies and misinformation on social media

Researchers thought social media platforms would improve political participation and the democratic process. After playing an essential role in the Arab Spring movements, scholars and the press focused on how social media was used to increase participation and organise democratic protests.

However, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey were an eye-opening moment for many authoritarian and non-democratic regimes. Many dictators and strongmen realised that social media platforms could threaten their regimes, and that they could be used against them.

Thus, social media must be controlled. As a result, many non-democratic regimes have begun treating the platforms as a tool for manipulating and managing public opinion. For example, today the Chinese government employ millions of trolls to track social media messages of its citizens that could be harmful to the government's interests, the Turkish government uses troll armies to spread misinformation about its opponents, Russia trains and uses thousands of trolls to spread misinformation about U.S. elections to polarise American voters.

Authoritarian governments and non-democratic regimes use troll armies for several purposes. First, they can use them to protect their regimes or their leader. For example, if international communities or people start questioning democracy or freedom of speech in that country, troll armies can spread misinformation to restore public trust and reassure international communities that the country has a working democratic process and freedom of speech.

The second main reason for using troll armies is to preserve public order and suppress democratic demands. Many authoritarian regimes use trolls to spread messages about the dangers of open online platforms. They claim that social media platforms and other online environments can be used to destabilise the government, harm the country, or help the enemy. For example, after democratic demands on social media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: "These platforms (social media) do not suit this nation. We want to shut down, control [them] by bringing [a bill] to parliament as soon as possible."

Another important reason for using troll armies is to suppress critical opinion before it becomes widespread. For example, in 2015, a Russian politician and Putin's opponent Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. While many people thought that the Russian government killed Nemtsov, Russian trolls spread the idea on social media that this killing did not serve Putin's interests. The trolls tweeted and shared thousands of social media posts claiming that Nemtsov probably was killed by a foreign government or agent to destabilise Russian domestic politics.

Also, in recent years troll armies started to target other countries' elections. For example, according to the U.S. media, Russian armies targeted the 2016 U.S. election and spread misinformation. According to the New York Times, the misinformation messages created by Russian trolls reached 126 million Americans and the trolls tweeted more than 8 million times by using more than 3,500 Twitter accounts to reach tens of millions of American voters. 

Overall, today social media platforms are being used by authoritarian governments as a social control tool. Troll armies work as a lie machine to spread misinformation and disinformation to influence and manipulate public opinion.

From Brexit to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, troll armies influenced millions of people's decisions on very important political issues. Many researchers debated the impact of social media on politics and public life, but developments in recent years have shown that social media could be weaponised to threaten democracy and democratic institutions.

The question now is not so much whether democracy can be enhanced by social media, but whether it can survive in the face of online misinformation.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.