Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

Autocratic regimes use social media to win over citizens

Insidious trend has implications for democracy the world over

Photo: computer cables twisted to resemble barbed wire ©iStock.com | adventtr

©iStock.com | adventtr

China and Russia are leading an “insidious trend” among autocratic states to not only censor but subvert the Internet and social media, a development that could have serious consequences for democracy all over the world, says a University of Toronto professor.

“I think it’s definitely a way to brainwash people and to do it in a subtle way,” says political scientist Seva Gunitsky, who just published his findings in the March issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics.

Gunitsky’s study notes that Russia’s “school for trolls” creates thousands of posts a day pouring scorn on the West and opposition leaders. The Kremlin allegedly channels money to popular bloggers and journalists to post pro-regime messages on websites and social media outlets as well.

Similarly, China’s “fifty-cent army” consists of thousands of citizen recruits paid to post pro-regime messages disguised as the spontaneous outpourings of ordinary people, Gunitsky says.

From North Korea to the Middle East, social media is providing regimes with a better tool than even rigged elections and staged rallies, creating a cyber-battleground for the hearts and minds of their citizens.

The trend is not limited to tyrants and autocrats either. Gunitsky notes the growing controversy over so-called “net neutrality” in the U.S., where a 2014 court ruling struck down laws against telecom companies manipulating data sent over their networks.

“This is a trend that people in democratic states should pay attention to because this doesn’t just affect people in autocracies.”

Gunitsky says a review of scholarly literature reveals conventional wisdom has evolved from seeing the Internet as an unstoppable force for political freedom to a neutral medium with benefits but also limitations, depending how it is used.

It’s now conceded social media may have been given too much credit for its role in democratic uprisings such as the Arab Spring. Conversely, beyond the obvious examples of states blocking or censoring Internet content, there is little research on the subtle ways repressive governments have been learning to use social media, he says.

Even North Korea recently distributed about a million cell phones to their citizens. The phone owner receives text messages every day praising leader Kim Jong-un, while the government can claim its being open and modern.

There have been spectacular failures, the study notes. During the Arab Spring protests, Egypt’s authorities tried to rally supporters with text messages, but antagonized opponents even more. Similar attempts by the Ukrainian regime in early 2014 to frighten people with ominous text messages only appeared to rally opponents instead.

In the most sinister hands, social media can help prop up regimes that otherwise might crumble or act as a safety valve for releasing pent up frustration, heading off protests and open revolt. Autocratic governments can use social media to reach out to their legitimate supporters as well, Gunitsky says.

In China, social media allows citizens to call attention to local corruption. While that is good thing for those communities, it has allowed the central government to exploit those situations by addressing the corruption with great fanfare while avoiding more fundamental democratic reforms like free elections, Gunitsky says.

Likewise, Russians can participate in government commissions online and post suggestions for new laws that may be debated in the state Duma.

But behind the scenes, the government uses state-controlled enterprises and legal systems to control what information gets to the public and manipulate the outcomes, says Gunitsky’s study.

States like China and Russia also erect firewalls or exploit the popularity of domestic social media like Weibo and VKontakte to keep Western-influenced sites like Facebook and Twitter out of the conversation.

“The idea that there is a global information network that everybody uses is kind of a myth,” says Gunitsky. “It’s almost as if they live in parallel universes.”

In the News