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New methods to destabilise democracies: attacking public opinion

Some media have had an enormous power of influence on the population
 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

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Democracies need a broad and free information dissemination system.

New technologies have transformed our society and improved our way of life, thanks to digitalisation, which offers us a wealth of opportunities. In the field of communication and journalism, they provide an infinite number of possibilities for information, sources and stories, which are offered to us from the network without the need for intermediaries.

In this new media context, there is a process of disintermediation, or direct contact between producers and consumers, increasing access to all kinds of content, but not the capacity to understand them or transform them into knowledge. The result is a feedback loop, where traditional media and social networks coincide. It is a bubble built on the false premise that social networks are representative of public opinion, since they are the space where public opinion is shaped.1

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

Democracies need a broad and free information dissemination system that allows citizens to choose the information they consume, moving away from a system of indoctrination that educates citizens about certain ideas. For a free press system is one of the most important elements in measuring a country's democratic standards. 

That said, it is inevitable to recognise that some media have had an enormous power of influence on the population, and that they have exercised it according to their own political agenda, including some political parties that have used them to gain followers and disseminate their message. For the concept of a free press to exist, there must be the possibility of access to media outlets with a wide range of approaches, whether or not they are based on the 'cracks' that every society maintains, or have a cross-cutting editorial line. 

Despite offering this freedom of information, political propaganda also appears as a key tool for influencing public opinion. It is also a fundamental element in democracy so that any candidate or group can publicise their ideas and, therefore, can be elected by those citizens who identify with them or believe that their ideas defend their interests. Despite being an electoral information tool, it is sometimes used by third countries to destabilise public opinion. 

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

Public opinion in democratic systems

Public opinion is the pattern of diverse views and positions on a particular issue. Individuals try not to deviate from the majority beliefs of society in order to avoid marginalisation of their opinions and behaviour, thus reflecting public opinion. 

According to Herbert Blumer, a society is made up of different functional groups such as associations, corporations or trade unions which are interest-oriented groups. These groups try to influence other strategic groups consisting of legislators and individuals who make decisions that affect individuals. In other words, functional groups create this opinion that will be supported by the majority of society, giving rise to public opinion.

In order to see public opinion reflected, it is essential that freedom of expression prevails in democracies. Digitalisation, the exposure of personal data and access to information, coupled with democratic freedoms such as free opinion, creates a space that gives social network users infinite possibilities to access, share and disseminate information. In this way, we can find an immense amount of news, whether true or not, available to us, without the existence of an intermediary to regulate the traffic of information, in most cases. In this context, groups with specific objectives appear, aimed at creating a majority opinion, which seeks to confront individuals in society against the regime in an attempt to destabilise it. 

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

For Western nations, 2016 will be particularly remembered for the UK's referendum decision to leave the European Union ("Brexit") and Donald Trump's victory in the United States. These election results not only represented serious challenges to established political norms, but also exposed serious dividing lines between different groups of citizens, increasing the polarity of society.

At the same time, so-called "fake news" has emerged, created entirely or mostly in a style very similar to news reports that are often published online and often catering separately to individuals with left-wing and right-wing political views.

For the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been working on monitoring and detecting disinformation campaigns. The strategy of detecting and acting against disinformation was encouraged by European institutions to combat campaigns mainly attributed to Russia. This department detected disinformation campaigns of major foreign interference that sought to affect Spanish national sovereignty. The 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum are some of the precedents that led to the implementation of this cybersecurity strategy.

In 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as president and the United Kingdom left the European Union (Brexit). Neither of these democratic decisions was innocent, but the consequence of populist disinformation campaigns.  With economic and/or political interests, they aim to undermine the credibility of democratic processes and institutions. While "Trumpism" has further polarised and divided US society, the EU has seen the UK depart. 

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

EU's fight against disinformation intensifies after Brexit

A key example of post-truth politics is the Brexit referendum. Two key factors ushered in this new form of politics in the UK: 1) technological changes associated with social media, leading people to acquire their news online, where anyone can post without verifying the accuracy of claims; 2) a growing distrust of democratic institutions, political elites, expertise and traditional media gatekeepers leading, in turn, to a loss of trust in established expert knowledge, leaving the population willing to rely on information from questionable sources.2

According to a Eurobarometer published a year and a half ago, 88% of Europeans considered that "disinformation spreads easily through social networks because fake news appeals to citizens' emotions"; 84% considered that it seeks to have an impact on public debate and 65% that it is designed to generate profits for those who create it. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are behind the disinformation detected in Europe, according to a resolution adopted by MEPs.

Parliament's research shows that 45,000 messages about Brexit were posted by accounts originating in Russia during the last 48 hours of the referendum campaign, highlighting the vulnerability of the European project to disinformation. 

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This is why the European institutions support the creation of fact-checker networks. In addition, they have developed a series of initiatives during 2018 to define a European strategy against disinformation that emphasises the responsibility of social networks in denouncing false content. 

The influence of social media in election campaigns. Trump's victory in the US

One of the most underlined elements in Trump's campaign strategy, and one of the most innovative with respect to previous campaigns, is the importance he gave to social networks as the first channel of communication, partially abandoning traditional media.

The phenomenon of disinformation began to gain visibility in 2016 during the US election campaign, especially when some fake news began to be shared more on Facebook than real news. In addition, the Cambridge Analytica scandal raised suspicions about the US election campaign and raised public awareness. 

The New York Times and The Observer conducted a joint investigation revealing that in 2014 the company took a database for academic use and exploited it without permission to develop election strategies during the US election, one of the largest thefts of information in Facebook's history. Two years later, Cambridge Analytica, which was still in possession of the material, provided services to the presidential candidacy of Republican Trump, who won the November 2016 election.

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

Cambridge Analytica obtained the data through a Cambridge University psychologist, Russian-American Aleksandr Kogan, who, after gaining permission from Facebook to request data from its users, and funded with $800,000 by Cambridge Analytica, collected data such as identities, locations and likes. In turn, the application allowed it to reach the information of their friends, multiplying its reach to 50 million users. However, according to Facebook's statement signed by its vice president Paul Grewal, psychologist Kogan violated Facebook's data protection policies by sharing this information with Cambridge Analytica.

Following the revelations about the dismantled agency, Facebook blocked apps that collected data on its users and their contacts. Instead, according to University of Texas professor Samuel Woolley, who is in charge of a propaganda research department, political candidates and activist groups are now using their own methods, just as powerful or more so than those used during the 2016 election.

His team examined messages and found that Trump's app, and to a lesser extent those of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, and other political groups, collected data to personify communication via SMS, email or social media. Some apps also extracted information from your contacts and track your location and activities, such as shopping or church attendance. Campaigns can be combined with third parties, from data traders or public records, to target very precise messages to specific individuals or groups.3

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

Misinformation increases during the uncertainty caused by COVID-19

Taking advantage of the lack of accurate information and situations of uncertainty or crisis, there has recently been a global increase in the spread of misinformation that has flooded and contaminated the scientific community and public opinion. 

The disconnect between scientific consensus and public opinion on health and safety issues is getting progressively worse as the polarisation of society increases, providing an optimal environment for certain groups to propagate false theories, infringing on people's freedom. In this context, the emerging public health crisis due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) is also beginning to feel the effects of misinformation. 

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

Like the coronavirus, misinformation has spread far and wide, drowning out official sources of information, ultimately leading to further spread and ineffective mitigation of virus transmission. In recent months, the publications of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) have been considerably overshadowed by fake news and conspiracy theories.

As COVID-19 becomes a public health crisis, multiple theories about the origin of the virus have taken hold on the internet. In addition, these have contributed to confusion about how to reduce transmission and exposure to the virus, such as by encouraging the use of home remedies. Vitamin C intake and garlic consumption are being hailed as miracle remedies despite a lack of evidence. 

While many of these are harmless, some have the potential to be very dangerous. One product that has gained traction on social media involves mixing a solution of sodium chlorite with citric acid, which generates a chlorine dioxide solution. Instructions indicate that this powerful bleaching agent, which promises antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial actions, should be consumed. The US Food and Drug Administration has issued stern warnings against it, as it causes severe vomiting, life-threatening hypotension and acute liver failure.5 

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

It is important that in large-scale situations, such as a global pandemic, governments are transparent and provide clear and honest information to the public. Public confusion leaves citizens unprepared to combat a public health crisis. At times like this, the message from government leaders must be consistent so that the public can regain trust in public officials. The emergence of this virus provides an opportunity for the public and health professionals to fight in unity against this common threat. 

Conclusions: combating misinformation

Official bodies must properly manage, educate and address citizens' concerns. In this way, there is an opportunity to overcome the level of mistrust that has arisen from the anti-science movements of recent years. In addition, disinformation must be combated by dismantling these sources of false propagation that undermine public health. 

The European Commission issued in April 2018 its Communication on "Combating online disinformation", in which it advocated, among other measures, the creation of a more transparent, trustworthy and accountable online ecosystem. This perspective on disinformation in the EU would serve to "provide a framework for effective cooperation between relevant stakeholders, including platforms, advertisers, media and civil society, to ensure commitment to coordinate and increase efforts to combat disinformation"; and support for quality journalism including capacity building initiatives, new technologies and collaborative data-driven platforms.

 Nuevos métodos para desestabilizar las democracias: atacar a la opinión pública

According to Guy Berger, UNESCO's Director of Communication and Information Policy and Strategy, the answer is to improve the flow of truthful information and ensure that its demand is met. "To counter rumours, governments should be more transparent and proactively disclose more data".6

To counter misinformation, the agency uses the hashtags #ShareKnowledge, #ThinkBeforeYouShare and #ThinkBeforeYouClick on Twitter. At the same time, it promotes the idea that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are the best remedies to the dangers of misinformation.

"Blatant lies are spreading on the internet at a terrifying rate," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. A recent analysis found that more than 40 per cent of posts about COVID-19 on a major social media platform were posted by bots, automated programmes disguised as people. In this regard, Guterres stresses the importance of the work of journalists in helping people make the right decisions about the disease.

References

1 “Opinión pública e infoxicación en las redes: los fundamentos de la post-verdad”
2 Hannah Marshall, Alena Drieschova “Post-Truth Politics in the UK's Brexit Referendum”
3 “Cambridge Analytica ya no está, pero las campañas de Biden y Trump emplean otros métodos” France 24 (https://www.france24.com/es/20201012-cambridge-analytica-ya-no-est%C3%A1-pero-las-campa%C3%B1as-de-biden-y-trump-emplean-otros-m%C3%A9todos)
4 “Noticias falsas, desinformación, otra pandemia del coronavirus” (https://news.un.org/es/story/2020/04/1472922)
5 “FDA warns consumers about the dangerous and potentially life-threatening side effects of Miracle Mineral Solution”.  (https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-warns-consumers-about-dangerous-and-potentially-life-threatening-side-effects-miracle-mineral)
6 “Coronavirus: the spread of misinformation” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12916-020-01556-3)