The indictment of 13 Russian nationals by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election is spotlighting the role of social media in spreading fake news and disinformation.
Mueller’s 37-page document spells out in detail how US social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet allegedly allowed a Russian-government-backed entity, the Internet Research Agency, to create and operate thousands of fake accounts in what was termed “active measures” or propaganda.
Wall Street technology analyst David M. Garrity notes that the scandal has been aggravated by the refusal of US social media firms to accept any legal, moral or social responsibility in policing their platforms and user bases for fraudulent content or fake users.
Garrity says this makes these social media firms “complicit in undermining the liberal democratic system that has nurtured them” and raises the question of whether the US needs tougher laws on social media to halt such abuses.
From an Asian view, one ironic twist in the US caper is that China, a nation often chided for its “Great Firewall” and curtailing internet freedoms, would be virtually immune from the kind of disinformation attack directed at American voters. The two nations have vastly different political systems and it’s clear that the strict social media controls which China uses wouldn’t work in the US.
But it’s also a fact that a number of liberal democracies in Asia, including those of Japan and South Korea, are ahead of the US in instituting safeguards against fraudulent identities and fake content on social media. Their steps to combat fake news and disinformation might provide a basis for similar US laws.
“These may be markets to emulate,” Garrity told Asia Times. But others caution that societal and cultural differences between Asians and Americans make it unlikely that similar social media curbs will succeed in the US.
What South Korea did
In 2005, South Korea’s National Assembly passed an amendment to the Election of Public Officers Act that required all Korean users to verify their identities before joining and/or contributing to web portals and other major websites in the country. Passed after the 2002 presidential campaign, the amendment applied specifically to election-related online discussion forums to “protect the privacy of candidates and to nurture more reliable internet politics.”
In 2007, a further change to the Information and Communications Network Act came into effect that mandated user identity verification by every internet portal as well as professional intermediaries of user-generated content with an average daily viewership of more than 300,000. Online news media that served 200,000 or more visitors per day were also made to comply.
Under the provisions, only users who had had their identity verified through the submission of their Resident Registration Number (RRN) and other personal details were able to express their opinions on such websites. Failure to adhere to the rules could result in significant fines for website operators.
“(South Korea) has a strong aversion to false reporting and has ousted administrations that have averted the truth,” Diana M. Owen, an associate professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University, told Asia Times in an email interview. She adds that South Korean election laws prohibit publishing false information, especially in the case of misleading poll results.
Owen is the co-editor of “Internet Election Campaigns in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.”
Japan’s Upper House passed a bill in April 2013 to allow more online interaction between candidates and voters. The revision to the country’s Public Offices Election Law allows political parties and candidates to campaign online by updating their home pages or blogs and using social media sites like Facebook or Twitter to post comments.
But the law also took steps to stop the posting of slanderous comments through identity theft by requiring any blogs launched after the beginning of election campaigns to provide contact information. It also encourages parties and candidates to employ an email certification system to detect false messages.
Owen notes that prior to 2013, internet and digital media use in political campaigns was prohibited in Japan. The legislation passed in April 2013 nixed a previous ban on internet and digital media use in Japanese political campaigns, but she says the rules are still fairly restrictive.
Only political parties, for example, can send campaign email, and they must display online banner ads that link to a party website. This activity is also limited to an extremely short window of time (14-17 days depending on the election).
Owen says more recent rules have been instituted that prohibit the posting of slanderous comments and hate speech. Public disclosure of groups or individuals who engage in these practices is also required, and offenders face fines and even jail time.
Why did Japan’s government originally ban the use of social media and other digital media in campaigns? “The prohibitions on Internet campaigning were initially enacted because some politicians feared that Twitter and other social media could be used in a way that instigated negative discourse,” Owen said.
One of their concerns was that unregulated online discussions would subject politicians, candidates, and parties to ridicule, thereby undermining the political process. Looking at the situation in the US, Tokyo also worried that increased use of digital media use in political campaigns would cause the cost of these campaigns to skyrocket, giving an edge to wealthier parties and candidates, according to Owen.
By 2013, Japanese officials faced up to reality. They recognized that banning the use of the internet in political campaigns was in opposition to the country’s constitution — which guarantees free speech.
They also saw the upside. “Japanese politicians saw that digital media could be useful in campaigns. The short campaign period — which is much different than in the US — meant that the kind of unbridled social media use that occurs in the US would be unlikely in Japan,” Owen said. She also emphasized that Japanese voters are culturally less inclined than Americans to engage in harsh campaign discourse. So the use of digital media in Japanese elections has evolved slowly, without the jarring impact seen in the US.
Taiwan, India, Singapore
Taiwanese laws governing the use of various media in political campaigns resemble those of the US, though there appears to be less of a legal problem with spreading false information. “There have been some issues with trolls infiltrating debates on issues such as marriage equality,” Owen said. “The press has spread some misleading information about the Presidential Office, but these were identified and corrected fairly swiftly.”
India’s government imposes Internet blackouts, especially in politically sensitive regions like Kashmir, and polices social media websites. Facebook also ranks the Indian government among the top countries asking it to censor content.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority censors internet activity for politically and racially sensitive content. The island republic also has tough laws against online defamation and cyber-bullying.
Would any of these Asian remedies for social media abuse work in the US? Owen doesn’t think so. “It would be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle,” she said of the US’s passionate fixation on First Amendment rights. Unlike Americans, she notes that Japanese more willingly accept that there are instances when free speech should be balanced against the public interest.
She also cautions that official curbs on social media would likely conflict with individual rights that are protected under the US Constitution. The bottom line, according to Owen, is that the US’s passionate “free speech” culture makes it unlikely that serious steps will be taken to regulate “fake news.”
Garrity says the US needs tougher controls on social media since firms like Twitter seem incapable of “self-policing” their activities.
“We’re operating with a cybersecurity regime that’s quite porous and increasingly prone to failure,” he said, arguing that advertising-driven “commercial free speech”, as practiced by social media firms, doesn’t necessarily enjoy the same constitutional protections as individual free speech.