By Rob Cline and Olivia Dupree
Facebook has come under fire by Washington lawmakers and the American public in recent
months for their apparent involvement in the 2016 election. It has been discovered that Russian
disinformation operations paid for targeted Facebook ads that promoted Donald Trump and
sowed divisions in the electorate by touching on cultural wedge issues.
Facebook’s leadership failed to identify and curve these propaganda operations on their site, raising questions about
the company’s ability to independently maintain a truthful and fair media platform for Americans to get information.
While this problem seems uniquely American, we need to point out that Facebook is a global
website. Nations across the world have experienced Russian disinformation campaigns through
Facebook over the past two years. It has been discovered that the Brexit campaign in the UK was
plagued by Russian social media influence, as well as the French presidential campaign.
While it’s majorly important that Russian intelligence is interfering in the elections of Western
democracies, there are places in the world where groups utilize Facebook for much more
dangerous outcomes. In Myanmar, the militant government in power is engaging in ethnic
cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. This brutal violence against the Rohingya has been fueled,
in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook.
In countries like Myanmar, social and governmental instability means that traditional news
outlets like newspapers and cable TV have much less sway with the public, something both
Patricia Kabra and Louisa Williams spoke to when visiting our class. Without these forms of
media, the public forum moves to open social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook has
become the primary news source for most citizens of Myanmar.
This sets up a huge problem: Facebook creates a massive, open public sphere and leaves
everyone else to deal with the consequences. As the New York Times put it: “Correcting
misinformation is a thorny philosophical problem for Facebook, which imagines itself as a
neutral platform that avoids making editorial decisions.” Unfortunately, like we saw with fake
news in the US presidential election, people seem to have a willingness to accept what they see
on Facebook as true. This means the government of Myanmar has been extremely successful in
alienating the Rohingya through misinformation campaigns.
For PD practitioners, this represents an information crisis. On one hand, Facebook is an essential
tool in the modern age to reaching broad audiences that you would normally not reach with
traditional media. On the other hand, Facebook is an untrimmed landscape ripe for
misinformation and deceit by those who want to manipulate public opinion.
Battling social media disinformation will likely become a common practice of public diplomats
around the globe. US envoys who want to maintain the US’s image abroad will most likely have
to deal with Russian backed anti-American propaganda campaigns. Additionally PD
practitioners will have to learn how to deal with the social and political upheaval that comes
when disinformation campaigns are successful in their host countries.
Resource: Facebook as a Tool of Global Propaganda
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.