Recent revelations regarding the prolific use of dirty social media tricks to rig Latin American political campaigns once again shine a light on the seamy underbelly of social advocacy and politics. And as I have previously discussed here with respect to using Wikipedia for political purposes and other examples of social media dirty tricks, it's important to recognize the line between ethical and unethical strategies and tactics. For while we must always be on the lookout for dirty social media tricks, we never want to stifle the authentic citizen, media and candidate voices engaging in political debate via social media.
Social media has created a new era of political discourse, complete with high points and low points. But unlike past technological leaps in politics, like radio, television and the early internet, social media goes far beyond the distribution of political information to the masses. It enables the people to more actively engage with the political process.
Thanks to social media, citizens can now find like-minded folk, regardless of where they live. Even if you live in a small town surrounded by people with different views than your own, social media can connect you with kindred spirits. And with these connections, political movements can be birthed.
But while many of us seek an authentic connection with people of similar values and policy goals, there are some who are creating the façade of an opposition movement. They use social media to create a network of fictional activists seeking to promote the goals (perhaps nefarious) of one side or the other.
We must be ever vigilant to not fall prey to the influence of these fictional movements. We must be on the lookout for fake people promoting real candidates and real policies; candidacies and policies that may not be in the best interest of the people who are being snookered into supporting them.
Astroturf campaigns - campaigns that appear to be grassroots in nature, but are not - are not new, but they are becoming easier to implement thanks to social media. Not only can social media be used to create the appearance of a large social movement, but it can be used to create clones of real political leaders and influencers. With these cloned accounts, an astroturf campaign can make it seem that a prominent leader is promoting the campaign. Likewise, hacking real influencers' accounts and posting messages supporting a candidate (or embarrassing another candidate) can also shift the balance of a political battle.
There are a few things we must all do to protect ourselves from these dirty social media tricksters. First, we must be on the lookout for the fakers and expose them. Second, we must take to social media and share our ideas often so that the national conversation is filled with authentic voices. And lastly, we must organize our friends to do the same. The more real people share their voices with each other, the more the public conversation will reflect the will of the people. Regardless of which side of the debate ultimately prevails, if the victor is decided based on the debate among real people, the dirty tricksters will lose.