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Claims That Social Media Endangers Democracy Are Mostly Misinformation

Claims That Social Media Endangers Democracy Are Mostly Misinformation

Politicians, pundits, academics, psychologists, and consultants have been trying to understand why people vote the way they do for as long as democratic elections have been held. There are  many theories, studies, and exit polls, but few definitive conclusions. Which was most decisive: the economy, a particular issue, the candidate’s image, advertising, campaign spending, technology, organizing, voting rules, unforeseen events, the mood of the times, or some other factor? There’s usually no way to tell definitively, especially when an election is very close.

These fundamental uncertainties have spilled over into the debate about America’s declining faith in election integrity. As with voting decisions, there are many possible, yet unquantifiable explanations, making it easy to blame social media or really anything else. Proving a negative is even harder; there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate that any one factor had no impact at all. The best we can do is stack up the evidence, weigh the factors, and be skeptical of any claims of 100 percent certainty. Such an analysis strongly suggests that nontechnology factors have done much more to undermine electoral trust than social media.

2016 as a Turning Point

Claims that social media is damaging democracy became widespread in 2016, first because of the UK’s Brexit referendum in June, and then in November with the election of Donald Trump. Looking back, those two votes were tipping points in how the technology industry is seen, especially by the left. Not only did both losing sides place much of the blame on social media, but since then, just about every critique of Big Tech—on privacy, misinformation, polarization, monopoly power, etc.—has been given new life and force. Seemingly overnight, Big Tech CEOs went from the rock stars of Davos to greedy purveyors of dangerous misinformation. The “techlash” had begun.

However, even a cursory review shows that there are many reasons why America’s faith in election integrity has declined, some related to technology, most not. The nontechnology factors alone are more than enough to give voters of all political leanings cause for concern. Consider the following 10 sources of distrust, most of which were underway well before 2016:

1. Close elections. America had extremely close presidential elections in 2000 and 2016, and has had a great many close ones at the state and local levels. As we saw in Florida in 2000, given America’s byzantine voting processes, no amount of recounts or audits will fully convince the losing side’s voters if the difference is just a few hundred votes out of six million. In both 2000 and 2016, it was the Democrats who were upset and distrustful. In 2020, it was the Republicans. But the bottom line is that today’s 50/50 electorate places almost unbearable pressures on America’s hodgepodge of voting systems.

2. The Electoral College. In both 2000 and 2016, the democratic candidate won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College, something that hadn’t happened since 1888. While one can defend the value of the Electoral College on numerous grounds, many Americans—especially those on the losing side—understandably believe that the “winner” having fewer votes than the “loser” is fundamentally undemocratic. Complaints about the Electoral College were particularly virulent in 2016 and could easily reoccur in 2024 or a future election cycle.

3. Changes in voting processes. Largely because of the pandemic, the 2020 election rules were radically changed in many states—more mail-in ballots, less signature verification, ballot drop-off boxes, early voting, new machines, and more. These changes, coupled with the long time—sometimes more than a month—needed to count sacks of mail-in votes fueled doubts about ballot custody and other possible abuses. When combined with close elections, these changes are a formula for distrust from the losing side. Many countries rely on in-person voting because of similar concerns, but in America most of these new processes remain in place.

4. Candidate complaints. Al Gore was remarkably gracious about the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton—and many other leading Democrats—deemed Donald Trump’s presidency “illegitimate,” because of alleged voter suppression, voter roll purging, Russian hacking, and misinformation.[1] Likewise, Stacey Abrams refused to concede her 2018 Georgia governorship loss because of alleged voter suppression.[2] In 2020, Trump took charges of election illegitimacy to an entirely different level by legally challenging the certified outcome, as did Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in 2022. When the candidates themselves complain about election integrity, it’s not surprising that many of their supporters follow.

5. DOJ/FBI influence. Arguably, the single most decisive moment in the 2016 election was when FBI Director James Comey went on TV to reopen the Hillary Clinton email investigation just days before the November election. The fact that the reopening involved then accused, now convicted sex offender Anthony Wiener made for particularly damaging headlines. In 2020 and 2022, Republicans complained about the Justice Department and FBI because of their now admitted malpractices in the Russia collusion investigation, their role in censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story, and their close involvement in the “Twitter files” and “Facebook papers.” Given the 2023 indictments of President Trump and ongoing investigations into the Biden family, DOJ is playing an even bigger role in the 2024 election.

6. Media bias. Perhaps Russia thought it could help Donald Trump win in 2016, or perhaps it just wanted to sow divisions before Clinton’s inevitable victory. But it’s a certainty that mainstream American media favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016 and then Joe Biden over Trump in 2020. Both received many times more major newspaper endorsements.[3] This continued favoritism leads many on the right to conclude that American voters do not get a balanced view of the issues and candidates, and this contributes to the right’s belief that the system is rigged against them. The combination of a 50/50 electorate and a perceived 80/20 national media makes both groups distrustful of the other, as is now on full display.

7. Money. For decades, Democrats complained that Republicans had such a huge fundraising and “dark money” advantage that public financing of campaigns was required. Since Democrats raised much more money than Republicans in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, these calls have largely vanished. Republicans strongly objected to Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of some $400 million to help cope with the demands that covid put on 2020 election processes. Although the FEC unanimously ruled that these efforts were legal, there will always be suspicions when outside money is used in this way, especially when the donor is a known supporter of one party.[4] 

8. Out-of-touch elites. Many media, academics, and other establishment figures viscerally disapproved of the Brexit and Trump results. But instead of acknowledging that voters were expressing their dislike of unnecessary wars, unchecked globalization, outsourced jobs, the 2008 financial crisis, rapidly changing cultural norms, and other societal changes, many claimed that the real problem was that less-educated voters were being manipulated by misinformation, targeted social media, and Russian bots. It often seemed as if the governing class would rather undermine election integrity than focus on its own failings. Not surprisingly, many voters have become increasingly skeptical of whatever the ivory tower elites are saying.

9. Voter suppression. For decades, many voters have been discriminated against because of inadequate polling places, long voting lines, inaccurate voter rolls, bans against felons who have served their time, gerrymandering, and other tactics. In October of 2022, President Biden even warned of a new “Jim Crow 2” era. Given this old and recent history, it’s only natural that many people—particularly those from minority communities—might question the official outcomes of very close elections.

10. Mainstream misinformation. Whether we are looking at government or mainstream media’s claims about the Hunter Biden laptop, the Steel Dossier, the Wuhan lab-leak theory, the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing covid-19 and stopping its spread, or that the 2020 election was the “safest in history,” citizen skepticism of mainstream media is understandably high.[5] Today’s decline in electoral trust is inseparable from the loss of societal trust in government, politicians, media, law enforcement, the intelligence community, universities, churches and other pillars of society. In most of these areas, social media plays a relatively minor role.[6]

These 10 dynamics have greatly undermined societal trust in our electoral system, affecting just about every voter to at least some extent. Democrats can point to the Bush v. Gore decision, the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, improper intervention by the FBI, and America’s long history of voter suppression. Republicans are troubled by radical changes in voting processes; the biases of the media, Big Tech, and the elite; double standards within the judicial system; and the role of Mark Zuckerberg’s money. Both parties know that in an extremely close election, America’s ability to count votes with total accuracy is often questionable. Many independent voters are understandably unsettled by all of these factors.

Some of these dynamics cast doubt on the way the overall electoral system is designed and operates; others are more about influencing who turns out to vote and for whom, and still others are about the degree to which election results are accepted. Overall, it’s a serious list of problems, most of which show no signs of going away. Taken together, they provide the balance against which any electoral distrust caused by social media must be weighed.

Social Media’s Role Revisited

The main Democratic complaints about social media’s impact on U.S. elections are that it was used by the Russians to damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and help Donald Trump’s, that Facebook data was improperly used to target 2016 voters, and that social media played a central role in the events of January 6. Revisiting these issues shows that social media’s importance has been significantly exaggerated, as follows:

1. Damaging Clinton. Russian state or associated actors allegedly broke into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee as well as the personal email of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. They then released via Wikileaks a steady flow of internal DNC and Clinton campaign communications. The leaked messages confirmed the already widespread belief that the DNC favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. As this was mostly an issue within the Democratic Party, it’s doubtful how much impact the revelation had in the general election. But regardless, the hacking of the DNC had little to do with Big Tech and social media (unless one sees Wikileaks as a form of social media).

2. Helping Trump. Russian aligned actors posted content and used bots on Facebook and Twitter to influence voters and support Donald Trump. The effectiveness of these efforts is a matter of much debate. The Trump and Clinton 2016 campaigns spent $2.4 billion trying to influence voters, some 16,000 times the $150,000 Russia is said to have spent on Facebook.[7] To make the case that Russia was a significant factor, one would have to believe that, on a per-dollar basis, its bot and content efforts were dramatically more effective than not just those of the two campaigns, but all the other election influencers as well. While one can’t prove the negative that these efforts had no significant effect, there is no evidence or even a plausible theory as to why this would be the case.

3. Voter profiling. The Trump campaign used Facebook data to target specific types of voters. While the effectiveness of extensive voter profiling is also a matter of much debate, there is nothing illegal about this practice. Just about every advertiser and campaign team does it to at least some extent. The problem was that the data was improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica, by all accounts without Facebook’s knowledge or permission. It’s a case of Facebook failing in its data-protection oversight, not an indictment of social media’s effect on democracy. Third-party misuse of data should be a correctable problem, and detailed voter profiling will surely continue.

4. January 6. Social media is often blamed for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. But this gets the story backwards. The reasons so many people were riled up and came to Washington, DC, are the same as those discussed earlier. It was a close election; there were major changes to election rules; the longer the vote counting took, the more it favored President Biden; people didn’t believe what the mainstream media was saying; they distrusted the FBI and the “deep state,” and first and foremost by far, then-President Trump kept telling them—in person, on TV, and via social media—that the election was stolen, that he would prove it, and that it was legal to change the certification process. Since Trump supporters are often intensely loyal and have lived through years of unproven charges against the former president, many believed him. Social media further aggravated and helped organize this already highly motivated crowd, but it was clearly a secondary factor, as it will likely be again in 2024 given the multiple indictments of the former president.

In contrast, Republican complaints about social media in the 2020 and 2022 elections are basically the same as those with traditional media. They see huge bias in terms of both what is covered and how it is covered. The “Twitter files,” similar revelations about Facebook, and the recent decision of Federal Judge Terry Doughty, have shown that, regardless of their intent or motive, Big Tech blocked, banned, or shadow banned a great deal of content that might have been helpful to Republicans, most notably the Hunter Biden laptop story.[8]

While these were certainly significant events, they say less about social media than they do about bias and censorship across all media. Pretty much everything thing that Big Tech banned was also banned or ignored by traditional media as well. More pointedly, when people talk about “social media misinformation,” they are typically referring to false information posted by users. But in 2020 and 2022, the bias and censorship of providers was the more powerful misinformation force, even though the term misinformation is almost never used in this way.


Looking back, it’s debatable which electoral problem should be more alarming, the largely secretive activities of a hostile foreign power, or the largely secretive actions of officials in America’s own government and some of its most powerful media firms. Given that throughout its history America has engaged in various forms of election interference countless times all around the world, one can make a strong case for the latter. What happens inside of America’s borders will almost certainly prove the biggest electoral trust factor over time.

The intensive focus on Russia’s use of social media in 2016 was driven by the surprising—and very close—election of Donald Trump, the wider Russia-collusion investigation, and to put it bluntly, the fact that much of the media and Washington establishment despises the former president. In contrast, the Big Tech and media practices that stopped or limited American citizen’s use of social media in 2020 and 2022 received enormous coverage in conservative media, but relatively little from anyone else. These divisions are widening as we head toward 2024.

Fortunately, whereas the 10 nontechnology election-distrust factors seem baked into America’s future, the Big Tech concerns appear much more manageable. All the major social media firms now have dedicated teams to identify and limit foreign influences on their platforms. These companies know that they paid a price for their censorship, and they have strong incentives to avoid such controversies in the future. Twitter wants to do this by supporting free and open political speech, while Facebook has hinted that it might reduce its role in politics altogether. The entire tech industry knows it must address new trust concerns such as deepfakes and AI.

But the bottom line is that compared to nontechnology dynamics, social media is a relatively minor factor in America’s electoral-trust decline. The use of social media by citizens has been less of a concern than its use by foreign actors and the censorship of America’s online and offline media providers. Demonstrating that these two problems can be fixed is an essential step toward reversing the techlash and restoring the trust of technology consumers, regulators, and society overall. Hopefully, a few years from now the conventional wisdom will be: “Claims that social media is an existential threat to American democracy are largely false.” Such claims might even be labeled as misinformation.

About This Series

ITIF’s “Defending Digital” series examines popular criticisms, complaints, and policy indictments against the tech industry to assess their validity, correct factual errors, and debunk outright myths. Our goal in this series is not to defend tech reflexively or categorically, but to scrutinize widely echoed claims that are driving the most consequential debates in tech policy. Before enacting new laws and regulations, it’s important to ask: Do these claims hold water?

About the Author

David Moschella is a non-resident senior fellow at ITIF. Previously, he was head of research at the Leading Edge Forum, where he explored the global impact of digital technologies, with a particular focus on disruptive business models, industry restructuring and machine intelligence. Before that, David was the worldwide research director for IDC, the largest market analysis firm in the information technology industry. His books include Seeing Digital—A Visual Guide to the Industries, Organizations, and Careers of the 2020s (DXC, 2018), Customer-Driven IT (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), and Waves of Power (Amacom, 1997).

About ITIF

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress. For more information, visit us at


[1].       Colby Itkowitz, “Hillary Clinton: Trump is an ‘illegitimate president’,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2019,; Sabrina Siddiqui and Richard Luscombe, “In North Carolina and Florida, is the Trump voter suppression plan working?” The Guardian, November 3, 2016,

[2].       Glenn Kessler, “Did racially motivated voter suppression thwart Stacey Abrams?” The Washington Post, October 30, 2019,

[3].       Reid Wilson, “Final newspaper endorsement count: Clinton 57, Trump 2,” The Hill, November 6, 2016,

[4].       Ben Kamisar, “Federal election officials clear Zuckerberg's 2020 election administration grants,” NBC News, September 8, 2022,

[5].       David Moschella, “It’s Not Just Facebook—“Old Media” Spreads Misinformation, Too,” ITIF Defending Digital commentary, January 10, 2022,

[6].       David Moschella, “Digital Innovation Isn’t Undermining Societal Trust; It’s the Other Way Around,” ITIF Defending Digital commentary, February 1, 2023,

[7].       Darren Samuelson, “Facebook: Russian-linked accounts bought $150,000 in ads during 2016 race,” Politico, September 6, 2017,

[8].       Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney, “Appeals court temporarily blocks order that restricted feds’ contact with social media firms,” Politico, July 14, 2023,

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