Social media and democracy

Jiwan Chhetri, Setopati, 27 March

Politicians have found a new way of reaching out to large numbers of people, which is more effective, easy  and absolutely free of cost — social media. They can freely share and express anything they want. And since its a virtual world, they can sit in the comfort of their homes and create groups to mobilise people for real world action.

Because of its minimum cost for maximum efficiency, social media has now become an integral part of the modern day electoral system. Similarly, social media has also given voters a platform to voice out their opinion. All it takes to reach out to millions is a simple post, share and like. Although social media seems to be strengthening people’s participation by allowing people to express their views freely, is it really helping democracy?

Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher from Cambridge University, developed a personality quiz app which was used by 270,000 Americans on Facebook. While, it is not unusual for people on social media to use such apps, what users did not know was that it had a hidden feature that could access data, not only from the app user’s Facebook profile, but also access data of all their Facebook friends.  It allowed Kogan to collect, analyse and understand the user’s personality, while at the same time distracted users from being able to see the hidden feature. This is how he harvested the personal data of over 50 million American Facebook users which he then sold to a company called Cambridge Analytica which used the data to push Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Managing director of Cambridge Analytica, Mark Turnbull was caught on hidden camera saying that fact based election is useless because elections are all about playing with people’s emotions. The two fundamental human emotions are hope and fear, from which most of human actions are consciously or unconsciously motivated.

Kogan played with these emotions by collecting data on users’ personalities: for example unemployed white Americans. When they repeatedly saw Facebook posts about the border and Trump’s commitment to build a wall, it slowly turned them into a devout Trump supporters.

Such is the power of social media, it can manipulate and change your way of thinking by carefully designing what we consume. The end result of which is that Trump eventually won even though it seemed Hillary would.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has spawned a #DeleteFacebook campaign. Users are angry that Facebook did not do anything to reassure them their safety, except for asking Cambridge Analytica to delete the stolen data.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica is now fast approaching clients world over, boasting how it manipulated voters in the US elections. We will still have elections, and we will still be electing leaders, but in today’s world of digital dominance, democracy will no longer be a system that elects the best candidates.

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