AAs we look back at the erosion of democracy in recent years, it is becoming increasingly clear that technology platforms play a major role in its demise. The ability to provoke uprisings and coups through these platforms has made a once-difficult task frighteningly simple.
The dangers that information pollution poses to democracy have long been recognized by civil society actors and regulators, but the storming of Brazil’s presidential palace earlier this month serves as a sobering reminder of how real these dangers have become. More than 1,200 people have been arrested in Brazil for attempted military coup.
Clearly, technology platforms have made disinformation a defining feature of electoral politics, with real-world violence now a possible outcome.
The tech giant’s platforms have been a focus of involvement in the lies told by right-wing leaders before and after Brazil’s elections. According to fact-checking site Aos Fatos, Whatsapp, TikTok, Kwai, Telegram and Facebook were powerful organizing channels for those plotting to overthrow the government. Researchers point out that videos of influencers calling for the invasion of Brazil’s Congress garnered millions of views before being distributed through messaging apps.
Moreover, the fact that the uprising took place two months after Lula’s victory proves that election misinformation and polarization are enduring phenomena. Elections don’t end on election night.
The events in Brazil show how neglect of platforms by countries in the “rest of the world” and their cut-and-paste culture in the name of “scale” have contributed to this problem. Elon Musk removed Brazil’s entire moderation team shortly after taking over Twitter. His takeover served as a dog whistle for the country’s far right. Policy analysts found that platforms’ election policies were merely a translation of policies for other countries, such as Germany and the US (they even mention voting by mail, despite it not existing in Brazil). Several civil society organizations have identified critical flaws in Facebook’s advertising system that enabled problematic content.
Brazil’s wasn’t the only major election platforms struggled with in 2022. The US, Kenya and the Philippines also had a hard time with disinformation. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr attempted to rewrite history in the Philippines on his way to winning the presidential seat. At Mozilla, we discussed how Kenya was plunged into a disinformation dystopia in the days following the election.
If these four elections were an exceptional challenge for platforms in one year, imagine how they would handle more than 70 in a year? This is not a matter of fiction or speculation. It is real. In 2023 and 2024 there will be more than 90 elections worldwide. In 2024 alone, more than 2 billion people will be eligible to vote.
Elections will include both mature democracies with established institutions and nascent democracies whose systems are not as legitimized or established. It is in the latter – where platforms tend to neglect the safety of their users – that they can do the most damage. The ingredients for what happened in Brazil will probably be in many of them.
Platforms are definitely not ready for this pinnacle of elections. As in Brazil, Musk stripped much of the Twitter workforce in Africa — he didn’t even offer them severance pay until they went to press about it.
Content moderation is also messed up on other platforms, allowing problematic content to spread freely. Facebook recently parted ways with its content moderation agency in Africa amid an ugly lawsuit in Kenya involving allegations of human trafficking and union fraud. On the other hand, TikTok’s content moderators in the Middle East and North Africa have accused the Chinese company of causing acute burnout and providing poor psychosocial support.
It is clear to me that tech giants have become conflict profiteers. They advocate for self-regulation, but there is little incentive for these companies to anticipate and address the negative consequences of their actions. They prioritize profit over preventing damage.
Studies in Myanmar, Kenya and Ethiopia show that platforms don’t even enforce their own guidelines. This becomes problematic for democracy, and the only answer left is regulation. It’s time they were held accountable for the damage caused by their algorithms and business decisions.
Private industry, largely unregulated, dominates how billions of voters consume information. Brazilians have fought hard to protect their electoral process from the dangers of misinformation. Despite using the power of the state to curb its spread by right-wing actors, it still managed to gain a foothold.
The issue of fascism is complex and a simple solution such as changing technology policy is unlikely to fully address it. However, the lack of proper regulation in this area can certainly be fertile ground for its growth.
Policymakers and regulators must act. In a year when the EU’s digital services law comes into force and is likely to have ripple effects across the wider web, regulators are beginning to recognize that solving this problem requires addressing its roots. Their focus should be limited to contextualized accountability and proving the effectiveness of tech giants’ efforts.
When watchdog groups warn about online threats, as they have done countless times in Brazil, every organization should take it seriously. This is not only a problem of citizens and their ability to recognize disinformation, but also of the role and responsibility of the technology companies that provide this information to voters. It’s time for honesty about what works and what doesn’t, and what companies know and don’t know. Technical products do not have to be dangerous.