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How trolls will affect the election

Fake news, produced by foreign troll factories or domestic groupings spread virally through social media, will impact the 2018 Swedish election. That’s what several researchers believe.

Text: Betholof Brännström
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Illustration: Jenny Sjödin

Simon Lindgren.
Simon Lindgren.
Photo: Elin Berge

Fake news was a key part in the last American presidential campaign. Fictitious events and messages were spread via social media. And Russian troll factories, with links all the way up to the Kremlin, were pointed out as the origin.

Ever since, similar meddling has been suspected in other general elections in the Western world. So when Sweden is now approaching election time, it’s common belief that net trolls will try to influence.

The basis of fake news can be found in online culture such as on Facebook and Twitter, where you can have direct communication with individual users. Ultra-fast and emotionally controlled.

“It’s no longer about convincing a few hundred people in an open-air rally or publishing a polemical article in a national newspaper. Instead, it’s about getting hundreds of thousands of internet users to share your post,” says Simon Lindgren, professor in sociology at Umeå University.

Jesper Enbom.
Jesper Enbom.
Photo: Per Melander

“Whatever has great reach online is what people will talk about. It’ll be hard for parties to avoid. In that way, an organised online campaign would certainly make a difference to the election.”

Simon Lindgren is studying how the increasingly interactive and user-driven online communication affects and changes power relations. It has its good points – like, for instance, the extremely viral #metoo campaign, but also sometimes bad points. For example, when foreign troll factories step in to influence the US presidential election and the EU referendum in the UK.

“Even if these troll factories probably aren’t involved in the Swedish election yet, we can at least be certain that what happens on social media will have a huge effect.”

Åsa Wikforss.
Åsa Wikforss.
Foto: Christer Sturkmark

Simon Lindgren is backed up by media researcher Jesper Enbom in Umeå, who rather than Russian troll factories sees domestic political groupings, particularly by the far-right and the far-left, as the most probable sources of fake news.

“At least remarkably angled news items. Those are spread much quicker than the nuanced ones,” he says.

Åsa Wikforss, professor in philosophy at Stockholm University, is convinced that planted and viral fake news will affect this autumn’s election. And this includes foreign troll factories.

Toning down trolls’ significance

The role of Facebook as an uncritical conveyor of fake news in the American presidential election has been heavily criticised. The company has promised to increase transparency to make it more difficult to use the network for political purposes. Going forward, users should be able to spot what news originates from troll factories.

Your responsibility too

Take it easier. Never share something you haven’t read or thought through. If you are unsure of the source or the truthfulness, refrain from sharing.

Question more. If you see something questionable or fake that others are sharing, inform them of its potential false nature.

“What’s worrying are the psychological mechanisms in the users,” she says.

“It’s the general public that shares and spreads the messages, often based on emotion and speed, without reflection.”

“We’re rubbish at applying source criticism when we like a news item. Studies have shown that six out of ten people share posts without having actually read the content.”

And when something goes viral, you can’t take it back, the researchers suggest. Even if traditional media and established politicians can show that there is something wrong, corrections are often seen as just another proof of how the elite are lying and hiding things.

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2018.


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Think 1 2018 focuses on democracy.

In this issue of Think, we have gathered a number of Umeå researchers who give their view on what democracy involves, what’s important for upholding democracy, and what the threats to democracy are.

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