[Ed Note: The following post is part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2019-20. It has been authored by V. Shanthan Reddy, a second year student of NALSAR University of Law.]
Contrary to our understanding of social media as only a benison, the scandals that have come to light over the past one year have proved the fact that the opportunity cost of using social media is alarmingly high. The biggest scandal among these has been the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Cambridge Analytical ( CA ) a British Political consulting firm illegally used data from Facebook profiles to categorise people into certain character types and then directed tailor-made advertisements containing information about Donald Trump’s agenda. These advertisements were presented in a manner that was best suited for that person’s character type, thus making him/her more susceptible towards accepting it and thereby largely increasing the chances of that person voting for Trump in the American presidential election of 2016 . There are two major problems with this –
- Firstly (and as widely discussed), it raises a huge concern over protecting the privacy of the citizens and their personal information.
- Secondly (and not as widely discussed), it inordinately threatens the foundations of democracy.
The cornerstone of a democracy is the electoral process as it capacitates the people to elect leaders of their choice which is the primary reason for establishing democracy in countries across the world. For any election to be recognised as “democratic”, it has to be conducted in a free, fair and timely manner. A free and fair election is one where people can manifest their choices without any external coercive forces acting upon them. The use of social media to engineer the choices of the people is a form of psychological manipulation and there are multiple ways in which in which political parties tend to do this – Data-driven political campaigns targeting advertisements to specific segments of the population, use of trolls, hiring online commentators who engage with genuine social media, use of bots to mass report genuine content, and using algorithms to make their political agenda trending on these social media are but few of the techniques which have been used by political parties on social media platforms to garner advantage for themselves in the electoral process. Many people are oblivious to the fact that they are being politically targeted and this is what makes these practices manipulative and immoral in nature. A well-reasoned debate is always encouraged in any democracy as it targets the issue head-on and parties on either side try to win over the support of the people through well-reasoned logical arguments. But these above mentioned social media practices of political parties tend to do exactly the opposite – they try to win over the support of the people by targeting their deepest fears and weaknesses, thereby disrupting the whole culture of engagement which forms a crucial part of democratic practices. The question that grapples many people is on how do these political consulting firms or political parties know so much about us? Here again social media comes to their rescue. Most of these firms gather data from our social media accounts and this doesn’t simply include information about one’s birth date or place of birth but goes deeper than that. These firms systematically track every move that we make on social media and this even includes simple acts like reacting or liking a photo or some news feeds on our accounts. The important fact to be noted here is that these actions are mostly driven by our natural instincts, and thus tend to divulge our deepest beliefs and judgements. Once these firms gather information on us, their next step is to analyse this information and determine our characteristics and the cherry on the cake for the firms here is that all this can be achieved by using pre-inserted algorithms with almost no requirement of human labour. All of this may seem hypothetical and impossible but a recent survey conducted by University of Cambridge and Stanford has proved otherwise – on analysing 300 posts you liked on Facebook, the algorithm could know more about you than your own spouse! These manipulative campaigns work with astonishing efficiency and are given an edge by the fact that humans are prone to believe messages that affirm their political viewpoint or identity regardless of the strength of the evidence. So, all that these firms have to do after determining people’s characteristics is to carefully group people with similar characteristic’s into one group and then decimate their agenda to each group in a way that it matches their beliefs and adheres to their political viewpoint.
The whole situation is further aggravated by the menace of fake news on social media. Most of the feed on social media platforms is uncurated in nature and thus it becomes extremely easy for fake news to spread as the skeptical filter of journalism is missing. More often than not, fake news on social media is used to propagate discriminatory ideas which when embedded into people’s mindset will give rise to the normalization of prejudices and will harden “us versus them” mentalities. Also, these social media platforms are not in a position to be held accountable, unlike professional media houses who have to bear the brunt of the people and media world if one of their articles spreads disinformation. Also, various reports have proved that the spread of fake news on social media is easier as the very socialness of social media can make individuals less likely to verify what they encounter online. This allows political parties to spread fake news on social media and when this is coupled with any one of the manipulative campaigning techniques mentioned above, it becomes a lethal weapon which ultimately drives the people to vote for their party. To make matters worse, throughout the world there is an increasing trend of people relying on social media platforms to read news articles. For Ex- In a survey done by Pew Research Centre it was found out that nearly 67% of the US adults use social media platforms as their source of news. This number may be even higher in the case of younger generations as their propensity to use social media is more when compared to adults.
Consequently, in a political environment which is dominated by false news and manipulative political campaigns, the likelihood of people making a “truly” informed choice has also dwindled to a large extent. Falsehood distorts decision making and colours individual’s judgments resulting in them taking a decision which is often in contradiction to their desired choice. This is exactly what manipulative political campaigning tends to do and thereby impose a serious threat towards the realization of the fundamental right of freedom of choice which is ingrained in the word “expression” of article 19(1)(A) of the Indian Constitution. The fact that a private consulting firm is able to swerve election results will ultimately lead to democracy losing its legitimacy among the people and the international community, giving rise to what we can call as “managed democracies”.
What do we do now?
Although there is no one-stop solution to this problem, there are few measures which can be used to alleviate the situation. These measures can be grouped under two heads: The first head includes measures which are aimed at strengthening the internal policies of these social media platforms which will ensure online accountability and make sure that the problem doesn’t arise in the first place. For example – The spread of fake news is exacerbated by the fact that people can create fake accounts and hence cannot be caught when they spread fake news. But if stronger real name policies like real name registration (which is the requirement that internet users have to provide the hosting platform with their true identity) were implemented then people will know that they will be held accountable and thus will be cautious before spreading fake news. The second head includes measures which aim at increasing the accountability of these social media platforms by applying pressure on them through the external authority of law. An example of this can be found in Germany where a statute was passed in 2017 which heavily fined social media platforms for failing to delete illegal, racist or slanderous comments and posts. Also, since most of these social media platforms are self-regulatory in nature such statutes will compel them to act quickly. A more election specific measure would be to prohibit the data-intensive, micro-targeted advertising-dependent business model that is at the heart of the problem.
Until now social media practices of political parties have not reached their zenith in terms of development and are still in their initial stages and in the coming future the importance of social media in the electoral process is only set to grow as it provides politician’s with a double advantage of reaching a large number of people and at the same time being able to target different groups of people individually. All in all, the lines between social media and elections have started to become blur and this has put the prospects of a strong and a free democracy in question.