The Covid-19 pandemic sent millions around the world into lockdowns—depriving people from routine interactions with family, friends, coworkers and even passersby. In many cases, social media provided a lifeline to keep up with loved ones near and far. As of October 2021, data indicated that there are 4.55 billion active social media users worldwide representing 57.6 percent of the world population, a 9.9 percent increase since 2020. Websites like Facebook that started 20 years ago as a way for college students to connect are now hubs for e-commerce, news, online gaming, entertainment and of course, politics.
The digital revolution which provided widespread access to the Internet followed by the advent of social media was hailed by many as “the great equalizer.” Scholars predicted that the internet and social media would be a democratizing force. Initially, this proved to be true. Mass protests, organized on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, swept the politically stagnant Arab world. Experts expressed cautious optimism that these platforms could facilitate a fourth wave of democratization.
However, the euphoria that surrounded the dawn of the digital age waned as autocratic leaders quickly learned to coopt social media to consolidate power. Democratic nations remained somewhat oblivious to the possible impact social media could have on their own systems of governance. It wasn’t until information about the influence of Russia in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom did democracies begin to take note.
In order to fully understand implications of social media on politics and governance, the benefits must be recognized. Average citizens can interact with their leaders on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This is a good thing. Citizens should have the ability to engage with government officials on issues that impact their lives, and lawmakers need that feedback to ensure sound policy-making. The first section of this article will explore how social media can promote meaningful interaction between citizens and their governments and improve governance.
However, these benefits are increasingly being negated as authoritarian regimes with malign intent, such as those in China and Russia, exploit the inherent weaknesses, lack of regulation and business models of the platforms. To understand how and why they do this, it is necessary to examine how and why they seek to manipulate social media networks within their own borders. Yet, state actors are not the only ones that are sowing discord on social media and cannot be blamed for its various downfalls. Platforms themselves are complicit in promoting content that erodes trust in traditional governance structures and spurs dangerous and extremist beliefs and actions.
Social media provides elected officials with a venue to communicate rapidly with not only their constituents, but a larger audience, as well. This is particularly enticing to those who have ambitions for a higher office and want to increase their name recognition and audience.
Altogether, democracies must understand the dangers that both state actors and businesses alike pose serving to weaponize social media within their countries undermining not only the positive aspects of social media for governance but also how social media can pose a serious threat to the health of democracy. The second and third sections provide an analysis of how state actors are seeking to undermine democracy and democratic institutions to the extent that social media is increasingly a battlefield in which great power competition is manifesting itself. The final section of this article proposes a two-pronged approach to preserve the benefits of social media while mitigating the shortcomings, requiring both regulation and education.
The Good: Promoting Increased Transparency and Good Governance
While there are undoubtedly significant drawbacks to social media’s role in politics, there are also significant benefits. If that was not the case, politicians and other public figures would not participate in social media.
Social media is an important tool for communicating with voters under 65. Research shows that 84 percent of 18 to 29 year old’s, 81 percent of 30 to 49 year old’s and 73 percent of 50 to 64 year old’s in the United States regularly use social media sites. Social media penetration is even higher in other parts of the world. Seventy nine percent of the populations of Western and Northern Europe utilize social media. Politicians and elected officials must meet the people where they are at if they wish to be re-elected and stay in office. The data shows that the people are on social media, so increasingly government officials are making use of these platforms to communicate with the voting public.
Social media provides elected officials with a venue to communicate rapidly with not only their constituents, but a larger audience, as well. This is particularly enticing to those who have ambitions for a higher office and want to increase their name recognition and audience. Aside from the benefits of self-promotion, social media helps elected officials fulfill one of the most fundamental functions of their office—representing their constituents. A study undertaken by the Congressional Management Foundation in the United States found that 76 percent of staff working for members of the United States Congress surveyed felt that social media enabled more meaningful interactions with their constituents. This shows how social media is widely accepted as a useful tool for citizen engagement.
One can also look to projects in emerging democracies to see the positive impacts of social media on governance. A comprehensive analysis assessing the linkages between social media and governance in 49 African countries found that Facebook penetration was positively associated with governance. Beyond Facebook, governments are using social media platforms to directly engage with citizens and respond to their needs. In Kenya, a new platform using SMS technology was developed to connect newly formed county assemblies with citizens to solicit views on issues impacting communities across the country. This enabled the collection of critical information that impacted the delivery of government services such as infrastructure improvements.
Social media has the potential to increase transparency and accountability of elected officials, two foundational tenants of democracy. In mere seconds, a politician can inform their followers how and why they support or oppose pending legislation. Conversely, policymakers can solicit feedback and opinions from constituents about legislation or other matters under consideration. However, this type of feedback must be calibrated carefully. Social media can obfuscate the identity and location of a person making it nearly impossible for policymakers to discern whether a respondent is based in the geographic area which they represent.
The Bad: Domestic Manipulation of Social Media in the PRC and Russian Federation
In order to understand how social media can be manipulated to achieve political outcomes, it is useful to examine how control of these platforms have evolved in non-democracies. Once the potential downfall of authoritarian regimes, dictators have now mastered the art of channeling social media to their advantage both within and outside of the borders of their own countries.
Social media threatened the power of autocratic regimes long before it threatened democracies. Twitter and Facebook played a vital role in mobilizing the mass protest that swept Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya in 2011 that became known as the “Arab Spring.” With the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring fizzled out and autocrats learned to adapt to maintain their grip on power in the age of social. This is perhaps evident nowhere more than the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Democracies with strong institutions are no less vulnerable to bad actors seeking to use social media to promote fringe ideas and spread misinformation. A good example of this can be found in the heated debate on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.
According to Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom of the Net report, the Internet in China is more restricted than in any other country in the world. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses a highly sophisticated censorship regime known as “the Great Firewall” to tightly control what can and cannot be accessed via the Internet in China. While the CCP has in large part banned Western-based social media companies from operating in China, they have allowed and even promoted many domestic social media companies such as Weibo and WeChat suggesting that they see social media as a useful tool. Social media is just the latest victim of cooptation by autocrats.
Since authoritarian regimes do not receive the electoral feedback that democracies do, social media is an important tool in monitoring citizen discontent and popular opinion. The CCP has made a concerted effort in recent years to root out corrupt officials at the local level. Monitoring social media has allowed them to do so more effectively and stem off discontent. By punishing corrupt local officials, top CCP officials in Beijing are able to paint themselves as governing fairly and justly. Social media also serves as a pressure gauge on pent up frustration. Citizens can express themselves and their frustrations with the ruling party that falls short of full-fledged dissent.
The CCP has an unmatched ability to censor information and comments on social media and the Internet more broadly. However, aside from censorship, the CCP uses several techniques to manipulate social media domestically, which have been adopted by other authoritarian regimes. “Astroturfing,” or flooding platforms with comments and posts by fabricated accounts designed to look like ordinary Chinese citizens, is a common technique.
Russian manipulation of social media looks very similar to the CCP model. The Russian state employs nominally private entities to conduct the majority of their social media influence operations. However, these “private” companies are closely linked to the Kremlin providing little doubt about from where the directions for operations is coming. Similar to the CCP, Russia floods social media with comments authored by paid Internet trolls, attacking posts and information that runs counter to the positions of the Russian state. These trolls work 12-hour shifts, are on-duty 24 hours a day, and must meet daily quotas for comments. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty identified thousands of fake accounts maintained by Russian propagandists on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and vKontakte.
The Ugly: Enemies Within
All of this is not to suggest that malign state actors are solely to blame for the woes of social media. Much attention is rightfully on the implications of social media company’s business models and how their algorithms shape the information people consume and how it shapes their viewpoints and actions—political and otherwise. Social media has undoubtedly played a catalyzing role in horrific acts of violence in places including Myanmar and Ethiopia.
The business model on which social media companies is clearly flawed and demands attention. Much research and attention has catalyzed around the human psychology of which these companies capitalize on to keep people scrolling and spending additional time on their platforms, hence driving up profitability. This is not fully understood or appreciated by end users.
Democracies with strong institutions are no less vulnerable to bad actors seeking to use social media to promote fringe ideas and spread misinformation. A good example of this can be found in the heated debate on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines. Researchers found that the majority of misleading and false information has come from just 12 U.S. based individuals. However, China and Russia amplify these voices in pursuit of their own objectives.
Divisions among populations living in democratic societies on important issues are not new. This is why political parties—representing diverse viewpoints—exist. However, the amplification of these divisions in democratic societies on social media is what makes these platforms increasingly dangerous and contributes to the mistrust in institutions. Increasingly domestic actors within national borders are exploiting these divisions for their own gains. But the playbook on how to do this was written by two nations in particular—the PRC and Russia, which is why it is crucial to explore the motivations and goals behind how their actions continue to shape the discourse in the social media sphere.
Social Media Manipulation in an Era of Great Power Competition
As the world moves into an era of great power competition, social media platforms have become a new battlefield. Currently, authoritarian leaders are ahead of the curve. Once authoritarian regimes learned to channel social media to control their own populations, they set their sights abroad. Leaders in China and Russia understand that, currently, they cannot win a conventional war against the United States. However, they can strengthen their positions at home and abroad by undermining democratic systems and making them appear deeply divided and chaotic. These leaders understand what some in the United States have forgotten, in an era of great power competition rhetoric can be as important as weapons. President Ronald Reagan deployed this masterfully in the 1980s appealing to the universal values of freedom, human rights and democracy.
Social media influence campaigns by both the CCP and the Russian regime in the United States are well documented. Their goals in undertaking these efforts diverge slightly. The primary objectives of Russia’s influence operations in the United States have been identified as “challenging the resolve of NATO, manipulating and creating distrust in the U.S. electoral system, and exacerbating disagreements and divisions between the U.S. and the European Union.” With Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for territorial expansion as evinced by the invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, challenging NATO and dividing the U.S.—European alliance makes strategic sense. While disrupting democratic elections in the U.S. in 2016 supported Russia’s longstanding goal of undermining the Western democratic order and discrediting democracy, it also supported Putin’s personal preference for Donald Trump’s candidacy.
While the CCP has traditionally taken a less confrontational approach seeking to characterize China’s rise as a positive and beneficial development for the world, things have shifted as tensions continue to rise between political leaders in the U.S. and China. Beginning in 2019, the Chinese sought to channel its social media operations to discredit pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Researchers have recently identified a broad based campaign to shift blame for the Covid-19 pandemic to the U.S.
It is unlikely that influence activities on social media by the CCP and Kremlin in the United States will subside anytime soon. Therefore, it is critical that democratic nations come to terms with how to confront this challenge without compromising democratic values.
Winning the Battle: A Two-Pronged Approach
If social media is the battlefield for a new proxy war between great powers, the question becomes how democracies can fight back without employing the same undemocratic techniques used by their adversaries.
Democratic nations, and the United States in particular, must take action to preserve the positive aspects of social media while mitigating the negative implications. Given that a majority of social media companies are headquartered in the U.S., the responsibility to regulate these companies falls to the Congress. Simply put, companies should no longer be allowed to promote content that evokes fear, distrust and hate in order to maximize the amount of time users spend on their sites. There must also be parameters put in place around entities that can pay to “boost” or promote content. Currently, any individual or company can pay to have their content “boosted” on Facebook for a minimal fee. At a minimum, greater disclosure and transparency around who is promoting content and what content is being promoted is needed.
Simultaneously, democratic nations must be more aggressive in countering disinformation campaigns on social media. This does not mean that democratic governments should hire their own cyber armies to conduct astroturfing campaigns or use fake accounts to proliferate favorable narratives. However, systematic efforts should be undertaken to promote “social media literacy.” Most end users lack a basic understanding of how platforms operate and how information is manipulated. Given the penetration of social media, particularly among youth, this should be incorporated into curriculums in school along with other tools which teach students critical thinking skills.
In addition to improving social media literacy, a more serious effort must be put into civic education. The lack of understanding surrounding the basic functions, limitations and structure of democratic systems of government is alarming. Social media can improve governance and communications between government officials and the general public. This can be immensely valuable if deployed effectively, particularly in the context of countries transitioning to democratic rule.
Social media has the ability to connect or divide, mobilize or incite, inform or mislead. The rapid growth of platforms over the last 20 years caught lawmakers in the United States flat-footed as they have struggled with how to regulate companies without compromising free expression or stifling innovation. As a result, the manipulation of these platforms to deepen divisions and spread misinformation is now a threat to the national security of the United States. This can potentially erode the basis of a democratic society if action is not taken.
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