The Internet, the European Union, and the radicalisation of political views

, by Michal Jarski

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The Internet, the European Union, and the radicalisation of political views
ENISA, a little-known European agency, may help us fight hate-spreading bots online. © awee_19 // Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The World Wide Web, one of the biggest achievements of the 21st century, the home of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other internet-based services. The new Agora, which additionally provides us with a sense of security and anonymity, so that we can express our views safely. The World Wide Web, home of bots, fake news, and astroturfing. But what are the actual problems that we face in the 21st century, and how are they leading to a bigger problem, which is the radicalisation of political views?

John Perry Barlow wrote in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996)": “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”, and it is the view still expressed by many internet users. They believe that they are anonymous, untouchable, so anything they say fits within their right to say it, and that no consequences shall or will follow. And this is not even the worst part of the problem, because there are hundreds of thousands of “bots” – hordes of accounts operated by an algorithm, instead of a real person, who search for tweets with certain tags or keywords and generate automatic responses [1], usually containing hate speech or links to fake articles. And there are many websites providing instructions on how to create your own Twitter bot.

Just imagine that you are an ordinary internet user who decides to create a new social media account (which you probably already have). You undergo the process, add your friends, start writing on your wall… Imagine, that you have no political views whatsoever. You understand that there is left, there is right, there is centre, there are some hybrid parties, but you neither like nor dislike anyone. They just exist, and you don’t care about them. But somehow, one of your friends is politically active. Maybe even not one, a few friends. They start sending you suggestions to “Like” or “Follow” a page. You do it and its content is getting into your account, because of internal social media algorithms. You firstly don’t care, because why would you. Then you start slowly getting involved, because you start believing that some causes are related to you. You firstly oppose some views, but because they are expressed by robots strictly prepared for that task, you start being over flooded with opinions. Opinions that you don’t agree with, but start agreeing with, because your instinct starts telling you that the majority has to be right. And you were not politically active earlier!

Just think about how such a mechanism can influence people who are already moderately active, or even have strong political stances. They are not afraid to express their views, because no-one will charge them – they are anonymous. It leads to an enormous radicalisation of the political views represented by the online public. Such ‘mechanisms’ were used inter alia by Marine Le Pen’s campaigners to convince people to vote for her in the French presidential election. And with more radicality, comes less argumentation, so the quality of the exchange of opinions is plummeting at the same time.

There are ways to spot a bot account, but they are usually not very effective when measures are taken at the level of the user. The big social networks usually prefer mass reports, done by many people in a short period of time. That’s why Facebook sometimes takes down Facebook pages that comply with the service’s rules by mistake [2]. And that’s why we need to have a common European agency dealing with such problems on a larger scale, and partly moving the responsibility of fighting with internet abuse from the social networks to the European Union.

You may ask “What does the EU have to do with all of that?”. And the answer to this question lies in one abbreviation: ENISA. Do you know ENISA? Probably not, because it’s not a popular agency. ENISA stands for European Union Agency for Network and Information Security, a European agency whose role is to improve information security, and to support the European Commission, the Member States, and the business community in doing so. So far it has been the only role of the little-known agency (besides supporting 2010-, 2012- and 2014 Cyber Europe), but following the “cyber war” threat, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, suggested establishing a pan-European Cybersecurity Agency, and it is almost certain that ENISA will be transformed into one. [3]

Additional funds suggested by Juncker would make the fight with cybercrime and fake news much more effective, especially as ENISA had already voiced multiple times the need of a rise in funding, because without it, the agency can’t work effectively. ENISA understands the problem of the disinformation campaigns, and it believes that, if adequate measures were taken, the threat could be fought. Will they make good use of the new influx of funds? It’s hard to say, but looking at their analysis of many cybersec-related problems, one can hope that they will, and that some threads we believe are hard to tackle now, will be dealt with soon. And the overall quality of the Internet will be increased.

Footnotes

[1] See https://twitter.com/mackozer/status/881552358232084483 – tweet in Polish, response in Russian)

[2] https://www.facebook.com/help/community/question/?id=10151561795426999

[3] Catherine Stupp: “Juncker announces massive cyber security overhaul”. Euractiv: 13/9/2017. Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/cybersecurity/news/juncker-announces-massive-cyber-security-overhaul/.

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