False information as a weaponisation of free speech

Nations often believe that domestic social movements are the result of foreign intervention. J. Edgar Hoover dedicated the FBI to the repression of communism and other movements, which Hoover saw as duped by communists into agitation (Cunningham 2004). Likewise, many regimes internationally see the US as responsible for instigating movements in their countries. Though the veracity of these claims historically varies, disinformation is a key ingredient. Furthermore, there is significant evidence that countries are intervening in the politics and social movements of other nations, with Russia as a leading perpetrator.

In the case of Russian intervention in the US, Russia appears to be trying to weaponise free speech by using it as the opening to sow disinformation, which increases political polarisation, reduces trust in institutions, and causes democratic turmoil. In this way, the freedoms that allow social movements to emerge and develop in democratic nations are weaponised to poison the political soil out of which these movements grow. Directly repressing or diminishing specific social movements is not the goal of these interventions, but rather the diminishment of democratic politics more generally. Indeed, Russian accounts have been linked to orchestration of both left- and right-wing protests (Benkler et al. 2018).

Efforts have included the coordination of campaign events alongside ‘methods clearly intended to instigate street clashes’ (Benkler et al. 2018, 241). So-called troll farms, often attributed to foreign powers, engage with activist hashtags to increase political polarisation (Nimmo et al. 2018), as they did with #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter.

Where Russian interference is concerned, there is no neat separation between interventions into elections and social movements. According to platform-provided data from Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, Russia leveraged social media to spread propaganda in the US, using a specific list of social issues to engage Americans. Posts documented protests and pushed people to attend or incite protests. In addition to BLM and various separatist movements, Russian operatives also targeted movements around gun rights, patriotism, police brutality, and LGBT issues to drive polarisation (Diresta et al. 2018).

For social movements, this weaponisation of free speech may have significant consequences. Tufekci (2017) claims disinformation campaigns so overwhelm people that they become disillusioned and give up trying to actually figure out the truth. We argue polarisation itself is also significant because of the kinds of vicious information cycles discussed earlier. Polarisation also increases group identity (Yardi and Boyd 2010) and motivates partisans while demobilising moderates (Wojcieszak 2011) so that people with more moderate views may become less likely to participate in social movements (Earl and Garrett 2017).

These collateral effects of disinformation and the assault on democracies that the weaponisation of free speech represents may be more important than the specific disinformation. Benkler et al. (2018), for instance, shows Russian accounts only successfully organised a few small protests, and social movements with substantial web presences can ‘correct and challenge misinformation shared online and offline’ (Anderson 2019, 203). But how quickly and how far those corrections can spread is uncertain (Starbird et al. 2014) and may vary by country (Applebaum et al. 2017).

False information as a commodity

For-profit actors create and/or distribute false information related to social movements to make money regardless of the impact false information has on activism. Three key actors profit from the spread of false information: disinformation producers, ad placement companies, and social media platforms.

Citizens of Eastern European countries such as Georgia and Macedonia have been identified as particularly prolific producers of false information due to high unemployment and few sanctions (Kshetri and Voas 2017), although organisations may also be involved (Figueira and Oliveira 2017). It is tempting to link for-profit actors to larger political motivations, but ideology likely only reflects profit: content aimed at right-wing audiences appears particularly lucrative (Kshetri and Voas 2017) while similar content aimed at leftist voters is not (Vojak 2018).

Ad placement companies enable the spread of for-profit false information by providing revenue to disinformation websites. These companies profit from linking businesses to disinformation websites and have little incentive to blacklist disinformation sites (Braun and Eklund 2019).

Social media platforms benefit from false information through the artificially inflated user growth created by fake accounts associated with false information (Dayen 2017). Companies such as Facebook and Twitter have economic models that rely heavily on user growth, creating little incentive to remove fake accounts and making them slow to do so (Dayen 2017; Maty us 2019).

Profit-motivated production of and brokering in false information means that when protest is an important topic of public discussion, injecting false information about protest will become even more profitable. For instance, in Hong Kong, for-profit false information producers discredited Hong Kong protestors as unrest grew (Matyus 2019). This implies that a consequence of growing public interest in a movement may be the growth of for-profit disinformation circulating about it. As with the weaponisation of free speech, false information about movements has negative consequences for targeted movements and democratic life.

Misinformation and journalistic norms in the coverage of protest

One critical difference between institutional political elites and social movement actors involves standing (Amenta et al. 2017), which refers to assumed newsworthiness or expertise. Social movements have to work to achieve standing and compete for scant coverage while institutional political elites face far fewer barriers in gaining coverage because of their assumed standing (Gamson 1998). The relative lack of standing for social movement actors means that when false information is shared about them, they face significant hurdles in correcting it. For instance, BLM has not been able to fully confront claims in reporting that were promoted by Russian trolls.

Journalists play a major role in publicly defining movements even though journalists may be selecting for extremity (Gitlin 1980), perceived authenticity (Sobieraj 2010), or other characteristics in deciding which movement issues and actors to cover and how (Gottlieb 2015). Scholars generally do not believe that professional journalists make conscious, calculated efforts to frame stories in derogatory, false, or misleading ways; however, informational biases can still lead to coverage that supports misperceptions (Boykoff 2006) and may be perceived as misinformation. Similarly, professional journalistic practices may hamper the efforts of countermovements to spread disinformation through the news (Benkler et al. 2018), implying that journalist practices may make misinformation more likely but disinformation less likely.

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