Twitter has announced it is suspending thousands of accounts used for political disinformation in China, Ecuador, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Spain, while Facebook has closed down accounts operating from Iraq and Ukraine, reflecting a slow change in the social media landscape that will strike a blow against those who thought they had found the key to influence democracy at will. The two moves follow many others, and more will come: social networks are finding, on the one hand, more reliable algorithms to detect coordinated campaigns to spread disinformation and finally realizing that they were in danger of losing control as more and more organizations and governments were misusing their services for political ends.
The suspended accounts are far less subtle than those organized from countries such as Russia or Iran to interfere in the politics of other countries and have proved easier to detect, particularly in the case of China. As social networks are better able to train their algorithms, they are better able to isolate these types of operations all over the world.
We have seen a sharp increase over the last few years in the misuse of social networks for political destabilization, but at the risk of being overly optimistic, it seems clear that we are reaching a second phase: before, these companies were unconcerned about manipulation, and even saw this as a measure of their success; but we are now reaching a time when they are not only actively fighting against this and no longer see this kind of misuse as way to grow. Obviously, the wrongdoers will find ways to avoid detection in an online arms race.
What does this change mean? If your political communication strategy is based on false accounts and manipulation, you might want to think about closing down your operations, because you’ll exposing yourself to ridicule when you are inevitably found out. As social networks use ever-more sophisticated methods to detect non-genuine behavior, only the most sophisticated and experienced players will be left in the game.
Surely it is only a matter of time before legislation is passed to make these kinds of activities criminal offenses liable to prison sentences, as is already happening in some countries. Misuse of social networks for political purposes will probably never disappear, but even if it is limited to a smaller number of miscreants, that will be good news.
(En español, aquí)