Why Social Media is driving us further apart – Responsible Technology Australia

Social media has given the world one of the most accessible platforms for individual expression for those who previously had no voice. But often, it is the fringe and extremist voices that are most amplified by these platforms.

Algorithms amplify content which incites strong reactions, giving false weight to fringe views, hate speech and fake news. While this happens, users are pushed further and further into their own personal bubbles where they are served more information that confirms their opinions, reducing our exposure to different points of view.

Malicious actors take advantage of these design features, exploiting our vulnerabilities in order to infiltrate our bubbles, manipulate our world view, stir controversy and get us to come around to their way of thinking.

Instead of bringing us together, social media is tearing us apart. In a recent study more than 74% of Australians believed that social media was increasing division and polarisation in our society¹.

How and where this is happening

So how do we know that this is a real problem? Below we have collected just a few examples of where foreign interference in Australian democracy has occurred and how the digital platforms are allowing it to happen.

Social media has been used to popularise anti-vaccination discourse

Datasets were collected from six public anti-vaccination Facebook pages across Australia and the US, with it appearing that although anti-vaccination networks on Facebook are large and global in scope, the comment activity sub-networks appear to be ‘small world’. This suggests that social media may have a role in spreading anti-vaccination ideas and making the movement durable on a global scale.

“Mapping the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook” by Naomi Smith & Tim Graham, Information, Communication & Society

Bot and trolls used to give false weight to a particular viewpoint

During the Australian bushfire crisis QUT social media analyst Timothy Graham studied 300 twitter accounts to identify any inauthentic behaviour driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag which was used to push a narrative that the cause of the fires was arson. Many of these accounts were found to be behaving ‘suspiciously’, compared to other hashtags trending including #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

“Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight” by Timothy Graham, Tobias R. Keller, The Conversation (Jan 10, 2020)

Conspiracy theories are able to spread rapidly

Disinformation around the Coronavirus is spreading online, with posts including claims of how the virus can be caught, suggestions it was deliberately released as well directing people not to consume certain food or visit particular areas in Australia. The rapid spread of disinformation is forcing Facebook and Google to ramp up efforts and use third-party fact-checkers to remove misleading information.

“Minister urges scepticism as fake virus news spreads” by Zoe Samios, Dana McCauley, The Sydney Morning Herald (Jan 28, 2020)

Bigots have an echochamber to disseminate their ideology

Neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance used Twitter to post photos of their vandalism, their distribution of swastika posters and violent stickers at universities and in public places across the nation, as well as radicalisation camps in Victoria before Twitter removed them. It was known that members were actively recruited through the web. “Twitter suspends account of Australian neo-Nazi group” by Kara Sonter, The Courier Mail (Jan 30, 2018)

Platforms aren’t taking responsibility to the prevent harms and reputational damage they cause

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest, former NSW premier Mike Baird and The Project host Waleed Aly were exploited in cryptocurrency scams on Facebook. In an open letter, Forrest called on Zuckerberg to update their regulatory and legislative frameworks to ensure society is protected from the harm Facebook facilitates by allowing scammers to advertise on its platform.

“‘Abhorrent’: Andrew Forrest’s letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg” by Jennifer Duke, The Sydney Morning Herald (Nov 11, 2019)

“NAB investigating after Mike Baird exploited in ‘fake news’ Facebook scam” by Kevin Nguyen, ABC News (Nov 1, 2019)

Violent ideologies are become easier to disseminate

A Harvard researcher investigating online radicalisation of mass shooters spoke to the digital footprint of the Christchurch mosque shooter revealing recruitment techniques observed in far-right movements and terrorist organisations. He said that shooter and recruiters in Syria employed social media to inspire lone-wolf attacks using a “media manipulation operation to bait journalists into amplifying hateful propaganda”.

“Accused Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant used same radicalisation tactics as Islamic State, expert says” by Kevin Nguyen, ABC News (Mar 18, 2019)

Bots are being used to amplify political messaging and voices

The Liberal Party internally investigated a surge in followers on Tony Abott’s Twitter feed from 157,000 to 198,000 in one day on August 10, 2013. Liberal party spokesperson revealed a spambot had most likely caused the suggest increase, with the new followers tweeting identical posts “The Greens Party new election ad is very ordinary, I’d be hiring a new creative director if I was the Greens. #AusVotes #AusPol #Greens. “Bots without borders: how anonymous accounts hijack political debate” by Katina Michael, The Conversation (Jan 24, 2017)


¹ “Social Media and Regulation Attitudes Survey” by Roy Morgan, Responsible Technology Australia (Dec, 2019)

Responsible Technology Australia is advocating for the ethical progression of technology for a safer, fairer, and more democratic Australia. If you’re keen to hear more, get in touch via hello@responsibletechnology.org.au

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