A few days ago, Twitter’s CFO confirmed that the Twitter ban on Donald Trump is permanent because of his incitement of violence back in January. This ban also impacts Trump’s ability to disseminate fake news on social media, something he commonly did. In this context, one might believe that Twitter’s decision to delete Trump’s account has a positive effect on the mitigation of false information and on strengthening American democracy.

There is however growing research on how belief in false information can damage democracy by promoting dangerous demagogues. As a response, companies like Facebook and Twitter have been creating new tools to track and flag posts that contain fake news. Nevertheless, this counteraction might create adverse effects, strengthening the subgroup solidarity of would-be autocrat supporters, who claim to be fighting against the censorship of the sociopolitical mainstream. In this way, having flagged or blocked content on social media may bolster the support for dangerous demagogues.

Bolsonaro’s bluff

In 2018, then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro shared multiple fake news during Brazil’s election campaign. From claiming that another candidate had created a ‘gay kit’ to change the sexual orientation of students, to questioning the fairness of the first round of the election (in which no candidate achieved the overall majority of votes, thus requiring a second round), Bolsonaro made various unfounded statements. In fact, 98 per cent of Bolsonaro supporters encountered fake news against his main opponent, Fernando Haddad. Moreover, 90 per cent of them believed at least one of these false claims.

In the context of the US, a study found that many American citizens who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then for Donald Trump in 2016, did so because they believed fake news that favoured Trump. This is a clear indication that false information can play a significant role in shaping votes. Although further research is necessary to affirm that fake news causes higher voting for particular candidates, this study is an example of the recent literature on the political importance of fake news.

Social media aids false information

There are various factors that make social media an appealing vehicle for politicians to spread false information. In 2018, 25 million people around the world started using social media, an increase of 13 per cent from 2017. Additionally, the daily time spent using social media increased by 5.5 per cent from 2017 to 2018, averaging over 2 hours. In this way, social media has become ripe for political campaigning, providing a space for visibility without accountability. Under circumstances where campaigning heavily depended on other politicians’ support, pro-democratic political elites could halt the spread of false messages by would-be autocrats more easily by not promoting them in rallies and on information vehicles, such as radio and TV. Nowadays, however, anti-democratic candidates can use social media to spread false information widely even without the support of political elites. Moreover, unlike in a structured political debate, they do not have to respond to any objections to their posts. In this way, some politicians act as dangerous demagogues who strategically use communication to gain compliance and avoid accountability.

A recent study suggests that flagging content with credibility indicators helps counteract the effect of false information on social media, but it points out that further studies are necessary to corroborate and generalize this argument. Activist organizations such as Avaaz urged social media companies to take this and other actions, saying:

‘How many democracies need to die before Mark Zuckerberg stops this madness of his platforms? … If Silicon Valley would simply delete all fake and imposter social media accounts involved in spreading disinformation, and distribute independent fact-checker corrections to everyone exposed to toxic fake news, it would put a massive dent in this problem’

— Ricken Patel, Avaaz CEO and Founder

Patel’s disbelief in social media as a vehicle of veritable information is not uncommon. In a report by the Reuters Institute in 2020, only 22 per cent of respondents said they trusted news on social media. That might raise the argument that, if most people do not trust news on social media, then fake news on Twitter and other social media should not be a big problem. Nevertheless, specialists assert that people are likely to classify what they do not agree with as fake news and to accept false information that reaffirms their views. Hence, even if over 75 per cent of individuals claim not to trust social media, it might be that many of them simply do not trust information that comes from the other side of the polarized environment. In any case, worried about this general disbelief, Facebook affirmed its commitment to combatting disinformation. Famous social media platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook likewise argue that they are fighting the spread of fake news by, for instance, removing or flagging false content with the support of third-party fact-checking organizations.

Too little too late?

But are these actions effective in reversing the impact of fake news on political support for demagogues? Another study indicates that simply showing statistical evidence that proves some information to be false is insufficient to counter the effect that fake news has on voters. However, the study does not explore the impact of detailed fact-checking, which would include a longer analysis of the false information. Thus, even though some social media platforms — like Instagram — already offer a more comprehensive argumentation against false content, extensive research on the effectiveness of this measure in counteracting the influence of fake news still needs to be developed.

Fact-checking might not only be ineffective but actually strengthen the support for anti-democratic politicians, a third study suggests. A possible explanation for this outcome is that when dangerous demagogues’ social media content is labelled as false information or even deleted, their supporters can claim that fact-checking is a form of censorship, as happened after the flagging of some of Trump’s tweets. Perceiving social media companies as an oppressive opposition, the demagogues’ supporters protest against what they see as giving unfair advantages to others’ (such as immigrants’ or black people’s) preferences. In this context, demagogues benefit from being flagged by fact-checking mechanisms, as they gain even more admiration from their supporters for successfully inciting reproach by allegedly censorious social media platforms. The deviance from social media norms, then, bolsters subgroup solidarity and improves the demagogue’s prestige. As with the other arguments already presented, further research is necessary to corroborate these claims.

The need for better solutions

It is necessary to develop and implement more solutions for the problem of false information on social media, especially if regulatory attempts to stop the spread of fake news end up helping antidemocratic demagogues. Some specialists argue that media literacy, for instance, is an important weapon against false information. In recent years, organizations such as Shout Out UK in the United Kingdom and Andemos in Brazil, have been fighting for this cause. As one of the members of Andemos, my goal is to strengthen Brazil’s democracy by promoting an education that prepares students for finding and tackling false information, understanding political institutions and culture, and acting for causes in their communities that they are passionate about. In partnership with Shout Out UK and other organizations around the world, I am hopeful that we will (and are) helping counteract the rise of fake news and the challenges they present.

Instead of focusing solely on regulating social media content, educating content consumers on how to analyze information might be a better or complementary way of mitigating fake news. More time, efforts, and studies will provide a clearer picture of the effectiveness of media literacy and fact-checking in counteracting anti-democratic uses of social media by demagogues as a means to strengthen their support. Andemos, Shout Out UK, and other organizations contribute to the advancement of this field, working to improve the ways in which education can be used for a better-informed society.

Giácomo is a Political Science and Anthropology student at the University of Chicago. Born and raised in Brazil, he now wants to support the enhancement of education and the strengthening of democracy in his country. He is a co-founder of Andemos, an educational organization that aims to promote a Brazilian society where citizens feel that they can participate in politics in a well-informed and active way.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.