Special Report:

From Obama to ‘troll farms’: how social media is changing politics

Hundreds of Russians plug away at keyboards, spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda on social media sites and masterminding online hoaxes every day. They work in what have come to be known as “troll farms”, named after the derogatory nickname used for people who spread hate on the internet.

Adrian Chen, who visited a troll farm called the Internet Research Agency while reporting for The New York Times, believes that the Russians might be the most organised trolls.

However, they are not unique — social media is being used to distort political debate around the world.

In Russia, Mr Chen says, internet users may not be convinced by the comments left by trolls on internet sites. But trolling works by sowing seeds of distrust in online conversations. It pours cold water on social media’s promise to bring people together for frank discussion.

“This more insidious effect is to make the internet an unreliable source of information and to undermine the democratic nature of the internet. That is to the government’s advantage,” he says.

Troll farms in Mexico and India work in a similar way, Mr Chen adds, and the same principle applied in “GamerGate”, an organised online harassment campaign against women in the video game industry, which erupted in 2014. “You can easily flood the internet with this garbage to try to drown out your opponents,” he says.

China also runs its own propaganda armies and monitors what people post online to see how public opinion is changing. Meanwhile Isis supporters have become expert in creating anonymous accounts that are used to spread propaganda and recruit potential terrorists. As soon as companies such as Facebook and Twitter shut these down, new ones appear.

When social media sites first emerged, they appeared to give everybody the ability to broadcast their views, suggesting that a wider range of voices would be heard than in the mainstream media.

However, a system that allows people to comment anonymously, and which makes it easy to retweet and share messages, is vulnerable to manipulation, particularly by organised groups with money and personnel — especially as the mainstream media seem willing to amplify their message.

Politicians have built large followings on social networks, thrilled to be able to reach voters directly. US President Barack Obama has more than 68m followers on Twitter, while the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has more than 17m.

But political debates that engage citizens are still rare, argues Professor Christian Fuchs, the director of the University of Westminster’s communication and media research institute. He points to Mr Obama’s use of his political account to promote a competition for a cruise to Alaska last month.

“Such populism 2.0 reduces the political public sphere to submit-and-win contests, political spectacles and personality politics dominated by leadership figures,” he says. “What is today largely missing are politically innovative users of social media that engage citizens in political conversations with each other, in which they have the chance to discuss and explore the complexity of the key political challenges the world faces today.”

Nick Anstead, assistant professor at the media department of the London School of Economics, says it is also a myth that social media is a way to reach large audiences for free.

“When people were first considering the internet and new media, there was certainly a sense that it was going to change the power dynamics, it would lead to a redistribution of power,” he says. But it is now clear that to thrive on social media, politicians have to have access not only to a large group of supporters and but also to money, he says.

In the 2008 US presidential election race, Obama’s campaign was seen as mastering the use of grass roots supporters to spread messages online — but it also spent 10 per cent of its paid media budget on buying digital advertising.

Andrew Heyward, of the MIT Media Lab, says politicians’ social media strategies now resemble those of brands, with Republican Donald Trump by far the most successful presidential candidate.

Mr Trump has made so many waves on social media they have flooded into traditional media and given him so much coverage that he is only just buying his first traditional, mainstream media advertisements.

Mr Heyward is using a new analytics tool to track the “horse race of ideas” in the US presidential election campaign.

Discussion of many topics on social media — from national security to immigration — reflects what is being said in the mainstream media, and vice versa, the study has shown.

Because of this, Mr Heyward is more optimistic that social networks can actually become the “virtual town hall meeting” that Twitter, at least, has aspired to be.

“It is a brave new world,” he says. “But actually, ironically, even though it takes advantage of a modern and sophisticated technology, it is a throwback to what the Founding Fathers had in mind — a lively conversation.”

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