Political campaigns and social media manipulation

January 17, 2020

Back in 2017, young experts started gathering data from different dating apps such as

Tinder. Through the anatomy of the algorithms of the app, they gathered data and filtered it into news feeds generated by automated systems to induce people to get involved in politics. The sole aim of these experts was to attract supporters for the U.K.’s Labour party. These online campaigns were for the benefit of the Labor Party and its constituencies. It is incidents such as these that illustrate the way technology is transforming society at a rapid pace. 

Facebook and Twitter, key purveyors of this information, have played a momentous role in connecting people around the world. For example, there are more than one billion users who use social media networks such as these across the globe. Indeed, social media manipulation has become quite an effective strategy. As we have seen, these computational techniques of spreading disinformation via social media have become omnipresent in a wide array of countries. Such platforms have been most recently used by political operatives to exert undue influence on public opinion. Mounting evidence accordingly suggests that social media networks are being used across the globe to manipulate and deceive voters for political purposes on an ever more widespread basis. This trend started with the Arab Spring in 2011, reared its head in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and even appeared in the Brazilian and German Federal Elections in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Turning first to the case of Arab Spring, its rise in 2011 was a significant transformation

brought by social media networks. For many, this was a remarkable change ousting monarchs

and dictators in the Arab world. However, others believe that these events were the result of an effort to bring about regime change by employing modern means such as social media. Although experts hold different opinions about the primacy of social media in catalyzing these events, they are in agreement on the point that social media manipulation played an important role in causing change, whether positive or negative, in the Arab world.

The second example of the use of social media manipulation for political purposes is that in the U.S. The earliest report of manipulation of social media in the U.S. came to

light as early as in 2010 during the Massachusetts Special Election. According to research published in 2010, a technique known as a Twitter bomb was used to distribute automatically generated tweets to anyone using a Twitter account. Indeed, anyone buying a computer program available at that time could use it to send tweets on behalf of any Twitter user. On an even larger scale, the 2016 U.S. election and the role of Cambridge Analytica played a watershed moment which shocked the world by unveiling the power of social media networks in manipulating voters’ behaviors.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election revealed the realities of online persuasion and the alleged role of Russia in the election by means of data harvesting. When Cambridge Analytica’s role became public, in 2017, Facebook disclosed that the Russian propaganda online networks reached 126 million Facebook users in the U.S. through ad campaigns. This Internet Research Agency, linked to Russia, posted 80,000 pieces of divisive content to U.S. Facebook users between 2015 and 2017. Yet Facebook was not the only social media network used for a vicious political campaign. In fact, more than 131,000 tweets were posted on Twitter to 2,700 fake Twitter accounts during the same period and more than a thousand videos were uploaded to Google’s Youtube by similar actors.

The third case, Europe, especially Germany, is crucial. Facebook was

directly involved in manipulating elections in Germany. In Berlin, the main office of Facebook

obtained detailed demographic information on voters. Using these data, particular individuals

tried online to convince certain sectors of the electorate to vote for the AFD, a far-right German political party. As a result, showing of this party at the poll increased the vote count by a surprising amount. Arguably these individuals developed algorithms with one core objective: to promote content that would maximize user engagement and posts that tapped into voters’ emotions, such as anger and fear. It is also true that the AFD hired young American political operatives who harvested this data to weaponize the web in their favor. The main company involved in this venture was Harris Media, whose vice president, Joshua Canter, had previously attended a meeting at Facebook headquarters in Berlin. Canter’s task for the company was to target voters and convert them into supporters of AFD. Canter’s strategy was to introduce a negative campaign against Angela Merkel. It was arguably as a result of this social media campaign that AFD’s vote went up 12.6 percent in the election in question. The firm then paid Facebook to send ads to different groups wrapped in political slogans. For instance, mothers might get ads about security themes, based around immigration.

The circumstances surrounding the 2016 federal elections in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, indicates the power of social media. Professional trolls and bots were aggressively used in Brazil during two political campaigns: one during presidential impeachment in 2014 and the other during the mayoral race in Rio in 2016. In Brazil, the major political parties tend to use automation on social media networks to target voters. It was through these means that they created incredible campaigns of lies, venom and vilification and launched them through social media against President Lula. This manipulation was also apparent in the election for mayor of Rio de Janeiro, when bots widely used for social media campaigns and to spread disinformation online. In that hotly contested election, Marcelo Crivella, right-wing leader of an evangelical mega-church, and Marcelo Freixo, a member of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party, contended in the final round. Members from the two different parties accused each other of data harvesting and of social media manipulation. In fact, both candidates even filed petitions, containing allegations of spreading fake news, with the electronic regulatory authority. In order to influence peoples’ political ideologies in favor of the Brazilian government, AI systems were used. From this it may clearly be observed that instances such as these of the corrupt and harmful effects of social media in the political sphere makes the problem of regulating it bigger and more difficult to resolve.

In short, it may be contended that protecting democracy from manipulation on social

media requires public debate and fair policy oversight. It seems also clearly true that defending democratic institutions requires public participation and the evaluation of social media practices and what may be considered legitimate discourse. Social media platforms have already become so advanced, that they provide the structure for political conversation. Yet, these technologies have been directly involved in permitting fake news and encouraging our herding instincts thereby undermining the democratic process and stampeding into decisions without regard for the public good. In addition, excessive use of bots and automated systems in public domains and their capacity to generate fake news and influence people also undermine the electoral process and present an obstacle to the functioning of fair democracies. From this, it seems clear that strict public scrutiny and oversight is therefore crucial.

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