Growing power of social media - Trying to expose the puppeteers

Vladimir Putin was one of the first of 107.3m voters across 11 time zones to use one of 97,000 polling stations to vote in Russia’s faux presidential election yesterday.

Growing power of social media - Trying to expose the puppeteers

Vladimir Putin was one of the first of 107.3m voters across 11 time zones to use one of 97,000 polling stations to vote in Russia’s faux presidential election yesterday.

Assured of re-election for another six-year term, he was supremely confident and assured the state news agency RIA-Novosti: “I am sure of the correctness of the course that I propose for the country.”

Spoken like a true demagogue and an inspiration to the dictators-in-waiting riding the wave of anger changing Europe’s political landscape. It is unlikely any foreign actor dedicated significant social media resources to try to influence the election as any impact they might have would not change the result. The outcome, known before the election was called, will be accepted as if an alternative could not exist or even be imagined. Any non-Russian who might consider interfering might be dissuaded too by the possibility of a visit from a roving Novichok squad.

At this level of politics, persuasion need not be that lethal to be effective. On Saturday, US president Donald Trump — described with an increasing chill factor as “the Russian candidate” — had his personal lawyer say he hoped the sacking of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe would prompt Rod Rosenstein, who leads the Russia investigation, to end the inquiry. The lawyer spoke just hours after Trump gloated that firing McCabe was a “great day for democracy”. In this narrow context, the only difference between Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America seems to be that Mr Brennan, a former CIA director who called his president a “disgraced demagogue” might not survive in a country where opponents of the regime often suffer unexpected health problems.

That Mr Trump made those intimidating, thuggish remarks just hours after he met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is coincidental but it is also a reminder of the kind of behaviour tacitly endorsed by a star-struck visit to the White House by our Government’s leader. That may not be the intention but it is certainly an unfortunate consequence.

It is also an unfortunate consequence that Facebook and other social media have facilitated the undermining of democracy by offering its enemies free rein on their universal platform. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg is under increasing pressure — though what that might translate into remains to be seen — from a House of Commons committee after it was revealed a British data firm had been suspended by the social networking site amid allegations it harvested personal details from more than 50m users, some of which may have been used to steer political campaigns.

Those issues will play out in the debate leading to the summer referendum on the Eighth Amendment — especially as, last week, the Broadcasting Authority pointed out that its remit did not extend to social media and that it was powerless to intervene. Acknowledging that lacuna, Facebook is to introduce fake news alerts on its pages for Irish users ahead of the vote. The mega platform will launch an “educational” tool to help users recognise false news and propaganda. In the absence of anything traditionally described as impartiality, that seems a modest enough exercise in truth preservation.

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