As we look back on the erosion of democracy in recent years, it is becoming increasingly clear that technology platforms are playing a significant role in its downfall. The ability to incite insurrections and coups through these platforms has made a once difficult task alarmingly easy.
The dangers information pollution pose for democracy have long been acknowledged by civil society actors and regulators, but the storming of Brazil’s presidential palace earlier this month serves as a sobering reminder of just how real these dangers have become. More than 1,200 people were arrested in Brazil for attempting a military coup.
It is clear that tech platforms have made misinformation a defining feature of electoral politics, with real-world violence now a possible outcome.
Tech giant’s platforms were a focal point of engagement with the lies told by rightwing leaders before and after the elections in Brazil. According to factchecking site Aos Fatos, Whatsapp, TikTok, Kwai, Telegram and Facebook were powerful organising channels for those planning to overthrow the government. Researchers point out that videos of influencers calling for the invasion of Brazil’s Congress got millions of views before being spread across messaging apps.
Additionally, the fact that the insurrection happened two months after Lula’s victory proves that election misinformation and polarisation are durable phenomena. Elections don’t end on election night.
The events in Brazil highlight how platform neglect for “rest of world” countries and their cut-and-paste culture in the name of “scale” contributed to this problem. Elon Musk purged Brazil’s entire moderation team soon after his acquisition of Twitter. His takeover served as a dog whistle to the country’s far right. Policy analysts found that platforms’ election policies were merely translated from policies made for other countries such as Germany and the US (they even mention mail-in voting despite it not existing in Brazil). Several civil society organisations identified critical faults within Facebook’s ad system that permitted problematic content.
Brazil’s was not the only major election that platforms struggled with in 2022. They also had a hard time with misinformation in the US, Kenya and the Philippines. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr attempted to rewrite history in the Philippines on his way to winning the presidential seat. At Mozilla, we covered how Kenya was plunged into a disinformation dystopia in the days after 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’s real. In 2023 and 2024, there will be more than 90 elections across the globe. In 2024 alone, more than 2 billion people will be eligible to vote.
Among the elections will be both mature democracies with longstanding institutions and budding democracies whose systems are not as legitimised or established. It is in the latter – where platforms tend to neglect the safety of their users – that they could do the worst damage. The ingredients for what happened in Brazil are likely to be present in many of them.
Platforms are absolutely not ready for this apex of elections. As in Brazil, Musk gutted much of Twitter’s staff in Africa – he didn’t even offer them severance until they went to the press about it.
Content moderation is also in disarray within other platforms, allowing problematic content to spread freely. Facebook recently parted ways with its content moderation office in Africa amid an ugly lawsuit in Kenya involving accusations of human trafficking and union busting. 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 offering poor psychosocial support.
It’s 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 prioritise profit over preventing harm.
Studies in Myanmar, Kenya and Ethiopia show that platforms aren’t even enforcing their own guidelines. This is becoming problematic for democracy, and the only answer left is regulation. It is time they were held accountable for the harms caused by their algorithms and business decisions.
Private industry, largely unregulated, dominates the way billions of voters consume information. Brazilians fought hard to protect their electoral process from the dangers of misinformation. Despite using the state’s power to combat its spread by rightwing actors, it still managed to take hold.
The issue of fascism is a complex one, and it’s unlikely that a simple solution, such as changing tech policy, can fully address it. However, the absence of proper regulation in this realm can certainly provide fertile ground for its growth.
Policymakers and regulators must take action. In a year when the EU’s Digital Services Act comes into force and will probably have ripple effects across the wider web, regulators are beginning to recognise that solving this problem requires them to address its roots. Their focus needs to narrow in on contextualised accountability and proving the effectiveness of tech giants’ efforts.
When watchdog groups warn of online threats, as they did in Brazil countless times, every organisation must take it seriously. This is not just a problem of citizens and their ability to spot disinformation, but of the role and responsibility of the tech companies who serve this information to voters. It is time for honesty about what works and what doesn’t, and about what companies know and don’t know. Tech products do not need to be dangerous.
Odanga Madung is a Mozilla fellow, journalist and data scientist based in Nairobi, Kenya