Myth #29: The Internet destroys the integrity of elections.
Franziska Oehmer and Stefano Pedrazzi
Myth: The Internet has become an increasingly important source of information for voters to form their opinions and interact with parties and candidates in elections. However, bots and trolls are suspected to massively manipulate the communicative process around voting and skew the actual popularity of certain politicians. This endangers the very basis for informed decision-making. The Internet thus destroys democratic elections and hijacks referenda.
Busted: Since the US election campaign and the Brexit vote in 2016, there has been speculation about the decisive influence of bots and trolls on online discourse. (#30) It is presumed that these (semi-)automated accounts that produce, distribute and like content or profiles in social networks under the pretense of human identity have distorted public opinion with serious consequences: Trump became president, and Great Britain decided to leave the EU.
The myth assumes, first, that bots and trolls quantitatively determine (or at least decisively influence) the political discourse by increasing the range of false news, inflating the popularity and relevance of political candidates, themes and positions, and making individuals and organizations of the political system or civil society disappear in the mass of communication activities or due to algorithmic filtering. It implies, second, that citizens mainly and uncritically rely on information from the Internet for their electoral decision.
The extent to which bots and trolls actually determine the discourse before elections and votes cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Depending on the vote, elections and national contexts, research has found different data and answers, ranging from comparatively large, yet not dominant, to negligibly small proportions of bot and troll accounts participating in the online discourse. The fluctuating values are also due to the fact that the identification of such accounts is (currently) difficult and unreliable. But even in the hypothetical case of stronger presence of bots and trolls in online political debates, it is unlikely that they will determine the decision at the ballot box. Only a small percentage of the population exclusively informs themselves via the Internet before elections or votes. (#23) In addition, having received information from the media or from unknown actors on the Internet is by no means the decisive predictor of the electoral decision: Rather, the personal exchange with our social environment or with recognized opinion leaders, as well as our existing political preferences, determine where we put the cross.
Truth: The Internet does not destroy democratic elections and votes. Currently, social bots and trolls have no dominant influence on opinion-formation and decision-making. Personal party preference and exchange with the social environment are still crucial. It cannot be ruled out, however, that the influence of bots and trolls may increase in the future.
Source: Emilio Ferrara, Onur Varol, Clayton Davis, Filippo Menczer, Alessandro Flammini, The Rise of Social Bots, 59 Communications of the ACM (2016) 7, 96-104, https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2818717; Samuel C. Woolley, Philip N. Howard (eds.), Computational Propaganda (Oxford: OUP, 2018).