This piece by MercatorNet editor Michael Cook (January 20, 2023) is reprinted with permission.
In October last year, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, told the United Nations General Assembly that what the world needs is less free speech.
Well, not exactly that, but close enough. She pressed for vigorous censorship of the internet because “prolific misinformation” is a new weapon of war.
“How do you successfully end a war if people are led to believe the reason for its existence is not only legal but noble?” she asked. “How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists?”
The prospect of government censorship of our views on climate change or the war in Ukraine is disconcerting. Who draws the line? Pro-choice activists have described pregnancy support centres as boiling vats of toxic misinformation. Trans activists have called upon the US government to “amplify facts over misinformation weaponized for political gain.”
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Ardern’s speech was her claim that if the elites ignore “misinformation”, then “the norms we all value” will be in danger. This is the most common cry of the 21st-century authoritarian – that speech can have a destabilising and even life-threatening impact, especially if it concerns big crises like climate change or Covid-19 … Images of Armageddon are marshalled to justify censorship of troublemakers. “Chaos”, as Ardern calls it – that’s what will unfold if your reckless, dangerous ideas are given free rein.
The menace of misinformation has been used to threaten free speech everywhere, from Nigeria to Russia to New Zealand to France to China. Nowhere, however, has the debate been as heated as in the United States, where Russian dis- or misinformation is widely believed to have influenced the results of the 2016 election which put Donald Trump in the White House.
However, a stunning article published earlier this month in a leading science journal, Nature Communications, suggests that the Russians probably wasted their money. The misinformation gushing across Twitter and Facebook made hardly any impact on voters’ views. After studying election activity on Twitter, a group of American and European experts in social media and politics found that there was “no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior”. [Editor’s note: The Nature paper is open access.]
This doesn’t mean that Russia didn’t work hard to sway public opinion – simply that its Internet Research Agency failed.
First of all, a mere 1 percent of Twitter users accounted for 70 percent of exposures to misinformation messages. Second, most of those who read them were staunch Republicans anyway. And third, American news media drowned the Russian campaign: “the scale of the Russian foreign influence campaign is seemingly impressive in absolute terms (i.e., millions of exposures), its scale may pale in relative terms to social media users’ exposure to other political content”.
Nonetheless, the belief that Vladimir Putin put Donald Trump in the White House has mesmerised many journalists and politicians. Former President Jimmy Carter summed up the conventional wisdom on the topic: “There’s no doubt that the Russians did interfere in the election, and I think the interference, although not yet quantified, if fully investigated, would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016,” he told CBS News. “He lost the election, and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”
The authors of the Nature Communications article suggest that this mistaken belief did more mischief than the Russians ever did.
The hysteria about the Russians sowed the seed of distrust amongst American voters. If Trump had been elected in a manipulated election in 2016, it was entirely plausible that Biden was elected in a manipulated election in 2020. The researchers conclude:
Indeed, debate about the 2016 US election continues to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and to engender mistrust in the electoral system, which in turn may be related to Americans’ willingness to accept claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election … Russia’s foreign influence campaign on social media may have had its largest effects by convincing Americans that its campaign was successful.
In short, where Russian saboteurs failed, the American media succeeded – they spread discord and division throughout the nation. There is a straight line between gullibility about Russian bogeymen and the “stop the steal” invasion of Capitol Hill.
The question of how much toxic misinformation on social media influences public opinion is far from settled, as the authors of this article acknowledge. But it seems sure that Jacinda Ardern’s dream of censoring the internet deserves to fail.