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On the back of a previous (now-closed) question: What makes the West susceptible to political interference and foreign meddling?

There has always been a baseline degree to which states seek to influence the politics of other states.

Does social media increase (relative to the pre-social-media era) the ability of one state to influence the politics of another? If so, how?

And if the potential for increased influence exists, is the West primarily the victim of this influence at the hands of foreign states? If so, why is the effect asymmetric, to the disfavour of the Western bloc which invented and controls the social media platforms?

Note: I don't ask merely whether social media can be used for any level of influence - I'm happy to stipulate that it is used for influence.

The question is whether states attain greater influence than in the past when different means of communication predominated, and if so, then why social media is more influential than those other past means.

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    Define meddling, as opposed to public diplomacy.
    – o.m.
    Jul 16, 2023 at 11:25
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    I would call it asymmetric in favor of those who are gaslighting, many of whom are in the Western societies.
    – o.m.
    Jul 16, 2023 at 11:26
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    In traditional media, there are editors between the message and the audience. There used to be the distinction between 'yellow' or 'tabloid press' and 'reputable press,' and readers did know which was which. With social media, the editors are gone, and algorithms score messages on one platform without any understanding of their truthfulness. Each platform becomes a mix of 'yellow press' and 'reputable source.'
    – o.m.
    Jul 16, 2023 at 13:32
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    I would say social media has deteriorated civilized discourse and created filter bubbles, which then got back at previously respected media. It used to be that people agreed on reality and disagreed on what to do about it. Now they disagree on reality.
    – o.m.
    Jul 16, 2023 at 15:17
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    @Steve I think you're veering into a very different question when you're asking about how trustworthy "the editors" really are. The original question is about how easy traditional vs social media are to use for foreign influence, not how truthful they are. The point is not that traditional editors are or were guaranteed to be reliable. With social media a foreign state can simply publish what they want and pay for views. Without that they would need to either suborn an existing media outlet, or start a new one and get it enough of an audience for what it says to be relevant.
    – Ben
    Jul 17, 2023 at 3:44

3 Answers 3

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It's hard to see how the answer to this question isn't simply "yes." Social media makes it easier to communicate to a larger group of people at significantly cheaper cost, from anywhere in the world. That's true of both private and state actors, and of good actors and bad ones.

If the USSR wanted to message to Western audiences, their abilities were quite limited. Nearly everyone consumed their news through TV or newspapers, which served as gatekeepers for the kind of messaging they allowed. Overt pro-Soviet messaging would be fact-checked, interviews would be confrontational, and infiltration was a costly, risky business. There were papers and magazine put out by local Communist parties (ostensibly independent, actually controlled by the Soviets), but they never had much reach outside of the already converted.

More recently, when cable became a mainstay and anyone could pay companies to host their channel, Russia tried their hand at an overtly state-owned outlet called Russia Today. When it comes to TV, it was a dismal failure:

RT, the documents note, is not present in Nielsen ratings for the U.S. for 2012, which it says start with channels with an audience of 18 million households. Nor does it make cable news channels rankings, meaning that, according to the documents, “the average daily viewership of RT programs in the US does not reach [30,000] people.”

The documents say that its viewership doesn’t even amount to 0.1 percent of Europe’s television audience, except in Britain, where the 2013 viewership was put at about 120,000 people daily: “In May 2013, RT occupied 175th place out of 278 channels in Great Britain, or 5th place out of 8 cable news channels in the UK.”

However, RT also has a social media presence, where it is significantly more successful:

In the U.K., RT’s monthly Facebook engagements (reactions, comments, and shares) are still well behind the BBC (which gets roughly 14× RT’s number), but it’s not far behind The Guardian (roughly 1.5× RT)...

In France and Germany, though, RT is a legitimate national player on Facebook. It’s well ahead of Les Echoes, and Le Monde’s lead is only about 30%. And in Germany — hold onto deine Mütze — RT was the No. 1 news source in terms of engagements on Facebook in both December and January, according to this CrowdTangle data.

This is just one platform. But it is also, from a historical perspective, a simply remarkable amount of penetration from a hostile, foreign government. And this is before getting into the 2016 influence campaign.

As for whether this is asymmetrical and to this disfavor of Western governments, my suspicion is yes, because those are the countries that are least likely to simply censor dissenting opinions. China or Iran don't exactly sweat whether or not dissenting views are organic or foreign-backed; they're going to shut it down regardless!

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  • "TV or newspapers ... served as gatekeepers for the kind of messaging they allowed" and "Western governments ... are the countries that are least likely to simply censor dissenting opinions" - do you perceive a contradiction between those claims? Or is the argument that once the gatekeeping of private, rich-controlled media is broken (I assume a "gatekeeping" media is inconsistent with claiming there is a "free media"), Western states are less likely to further intervene?
    – Steve
    Jul 19, 2023 at 6:39
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    A private party not wanting to share clearly bogus stories in no way contradicts with a State not censoring said bogus stories. If I wanted to say "I think Biden is a Brony" with no evidence, CNN not sharing the story is nothing like Washington banning the story. The biggest difference is I'm free to shop it to Fox News or Newsmax. The second biggest is the why; CNN rejected the story for being insufficiently supported, and therefore nonnewsworthy. And each outlet can make that decision themselves. And I'm entirely free to publish it myself.
    – bharring
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:21
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    The argument that the State is less likely to "further" intervene after private parties didn't stop a story assumes that the State had a role or say in the private parties' decisions in the first place. Which is patently absurd in a liberalized society.
    – bharring
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:24
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    "Gatekeeping" is not inconsistent with "free media". It is expected that media will bias their content towards truth and newsworthyness. To the extent that media doesn't report on Pizzagate emails or Sasha and Malia Obamas grades, it is gatekeeping "properly". It's not stopping anyone else from reporting if they think it's valid and important, but they aren't using their resources to lend credibility or importance to that stuff. As long as each organization can make their own determination, they are free. A bias to truth and/or newsworthyness is hoped for.
    – bharring
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:29
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    Maybe we should avoid drowning these answers in circular comments.
    – bharring
    Jul 19, 2023 at 21:53
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Does social media increase (relative to the pre-social-media era) the ability of one state to influence the politics of another? If so, how?

It's a mixed bag without a clear a priori answer.

The upside of social media is that it allows for a direct person to person connection that is less obviously propaganda, free of third-party filters for your message.

The downside is that it takes a lot more people and not entirely cheap IT infrastructure if you are a poor country (and multilingual people behind it, some of whom have to be monitoring it live at all times) to mount a social media campaign, than it does to mount a public diplomacy campaign in a pre-Social Media era.

In the pre-Social Media era you could have as much impact as was feasible by having a press conference, holding a few interviews in order to reach the general public through a handful of leading mainstream media platforms (platforms that are now less influential than they used to be), and writing some puff pieces for marginally friendly magazines. None of that had to be done live.

A few people at your in country embassy could run almost the whole campaign with a little coordination of one or two brief press junkets or foreign official visits in the homeland.

If you are China or Russia or India or Sweden, social media may provide you with the potential for more influence.

If you are Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan or Mongolia, you may be worse off.

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  • Within the logic that it is economic and linguistic resources that determines the underlying power of influence on social media, why would this make Russia more influential on the West than before, and various Western states less influential on the West than before?
    – Steve
    Jul 19, 2023 at 6:49
  • Discussion of changes in Russia in this regard has its own question, as there are answers to your comment there: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/80393/…
    – bharring
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:31
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    @Steve I am not evaluating Russia v. "various Western States". I'm setting forth a framework to evaluate particular countries on a case by case basis. The only "Western State" that I mention is Sweden, which is also a winner.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 19, 2023 at 18:19
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why is the effect asymmetric, to the disfavour of the Western bloc which invented and controls the social media platforms?

This seems a bit obvious: because e.g. Facebook (Meta) can be declared an extremist organization in Russia (and so banned). Likewise China etc. happily restrict internet access of their own citizens and promote their own companies at home, but easily rely on Twitter/X etc. to promote their messaging abroad, even those Western platforms are inaccessible at home.

With all the potential for a algorithmic manipulation etc. by these Western companies, banning them still completely trumps that kind of subtlety.

As for why the US can't turn Weibo into a counter-messaging platform of its own [to target the Chinese], this somewhat obscure event from 2018 tells us what happened after the US Embassy said something unpalatable to the Chinese government there:

in the ensuing few hours, Sina Weibo’s censors used every tool at their disposal short of deleting the post to ensure that the missive had as little impact as possible. Not only was the sharing function for the post switched off, but the comments section under the post was carefully manicured to remove liberal voices and replace them with CCP-approved sentiment. [...]

What remained after the censors had done their work was nothing more than a Potemkin post, with the comments under it carefully selected to give the impression of a uniformly nationalistic online Chinese public.

Twitter would not resort to the same level of manipulation generally. And the Chinese censors would more often just delete unpleasant posts from the less powerful countries, e.g.

On 3 August 2011, the Canadian Embassy was censored for the first time after it posted about Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing. The post included a full federal court decision that resulted in his deportation to China. It included mentions of Liu Xiaobo and Falun Gong and was deleted almost immediately.

And that article has even done some stats...

An analysis of three months’ worth of Weibo posts between November 2017 and January 2018 from the top 10 foreign embassies in China (measured by follower numbers) found 51 instances of censored posts, mostly on the US Embassy account [...]

The US Embassy account had 28 instances of censorship in total, and a variety of methods were used to reduce or erase the impact of its posts. Those methods ranged from the blunt to the subtle:

Six posts were deleted—some immediately, some weeks after the fact. Fifteen posts had their comments sections disabled immediately. Three posts had comments sections disabled immediately and then re- enabled weeks later. Two posts had their comments sections allowed, then disabled and hidden at some later stage. In two posts, Weibo notified users that comments were being accepted but asked that they wait patiently for a ‘server synchronisation’. The user comments never made it through.

Some of the outright deleted posts in that sample were hardly offensive by any non-political standards, e.g. an announcement of Trump's first stop in Japan (on his Asian tour) was immediately deleted on Weibo.

TLDR: just because you've invented something doesn't entail you're willing to abuse it to the max as well, although somebody else might do that with their copycat version.

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  • I get the essential argument: each side is equally willing to use propaganda to attack the other, but (supposedly) the other side is more censorious, making them more resilient against our attacks. What you aren't explaining at all is how this broad arrangement - of us being open with free press, and them being censorious - is any different from say 1965, when no social media existed.
    – Steve
    Sep 2, 2023 at 8:13
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    @Steve: I think TenthJustice's answer addresses that well enough from the angle of ease of messaging. Your question seems to assume that the social media era somehow gave the West an advantage because they invented social media. But that's not really the case... My point is that censorship works well enough in the new domain if you control the platform (and exclude competing platforms)--a game that China and more recently Russia have learned to play quite well at home too. Sep 2, 2023 at 9:13
  • I made a point in relation to @TenthJustice's answer which wasn't addressed. He basically argued that the so-called press was "gatekept" - I'm not clear why anyone thinks social media isn't gatekept, if they're willing to accept the press was and is, and if they accept China and Russia censor social media (so accepting it is feasible). My argument is not that the West has an advantage from the invention, but from the ongoing hosting and control of the technology. Someone made a point about language - I argue that each country should have a home advantage, speaking in its native tongue. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Sep 2, 2023 at 9:26
  • The bottom line is this. My question isn't about how social media is used for influence. It isn't about the relative benefits of openness or censorship. It is about how social media has changed the equation over time, given that the West has always claimed to be open against censorious enemies, and those enemies have always had sympathisers and mouthpieces. Personally I don't think social media has changed the equation - I think what's happened is just that the West has relentlessly attacked workers for decades, and so has lost its own credibility, nothing more complicated. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Sep 2, 2023 at 9:29
  • @Steve: I think you don't get answers to comments like these because they are beside the point for your initial question. Sep 2, 2023 at 9:48

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