By Marilena Kagkaraki,
We all know that social media affects our daily life. We know that it affects our mental health, constantly comparing ourselves to the virtual lives of others. But, how far do they really impact our lives? Is it just on a personal level? What if I told you the daily control social media have in our lives is a bit bigger than what we imagine? What if I told you that it even impacts the democratic system, the basis of our lives, in the present and the future? Maybe you would have doubts. However, I am here to unfold a story not really many people paid attention to or even have heard of. The story begins before 2016, on the roadmap to the 2016 USA elections. It is obvious that even in politics, social media play a big part. Even before 2016, when Barack Obama was running for U.S. president in 2008, his campaign was based on Facebook and Twitter. Since then, social media only grew bigger and more and more people got involved with them, creating accounts and following the news, celebrities etc. in a similar manner, the Trump campaign used those same platforms to form the campaign and reach out to all Trump voters across the country.
Digital campaigns are now a crucial part of politics. Social media though, were part of the Brexit campaign too. Before the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, there had to be a referendum in order to let the people decide. Nonetheless, politicians created campaigns to support their view on the matter and what road the country should take. Now, both the Trump and the Brexit campaign had one main thing in common apart from digital strategies; an ally under the name called Cambridge Analytica, a company dealing with statistics and analysing audience data. They were involved in both digital campaigns siding with Donald Trump and Nigel Farage of the UK conservative and Brexit party respectively. What this company did is basically they used Facebook to collect data from people. How it worked is that every time someone gave access to applications to use Facebook data to play games, quizzes etc., they would gather the information on that person and not only of them, but of their friend list as well. Therefore, they accumulated information on what users liked, viewed, or followed and based on that, they analysed what their views on politics were. They guessed with precision whether they were likely to vote for or against Trump or for or against Brexit. If they seemed to be undecided then all those data went straight to the campaign’s experts.
After all, the target of those virtual campaigns were not people who already knew what they would vote for, but the undecided. Campaign teams would use social media algorithms to provide content that would get people to divert opinion towards the favourable outcome of a Donald Trump or a Brexit referendum win. In other words, the undecided population were not only targeted with “vote for” ads, but also with videos and ads that had no direct political influence on them. For instance, they would see articles or videos of Hilary Clinton appearing to be weak, or deplorable economic figures based on immigration statistics alongside high rates of violence and crime. Thus, this led to people starting to feel uneasy and marked a gradual influence by the words of Trump or Farage towards a patriotic sentiment. In the end, this is the main reason why Trump won and how Brexit became a reality.
When the Cambridge Analytica scandal came into light by “The Observer” reporter, Carole Cadwalladr, more people got to know about it and legislation eventually came into effect. We witnessed Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, give a testimony to the U.S. congress in 2018 about Facebook’s part in letting those data be unprotected. Since then, Cambridge Analytica was shut down and law boards of the European Union and the U.S. are required to pertain to sever law enforcement rules in order to start protecting people’s data from these colossal technological empires.
The main question is, is this enough or social media are too powerful? Are users’ data fully protected or will there be another way again to gather them and rig the foundation of a democratic system? Are users aware of how data are used and how they could use social media more consciously? All these questions remain to be answered. All we know is, social media can be a lot of fun but it can also bring about the worst outcome. All we can do is to have in mind that most of the time we see what they want us to see and be careful of what we post and share. Social media is a great tool for us to communicate with each other so we should try to keep it that way.
- The Guardian, The Observer view on the information commissioner’s Cambridge Analytica investigation: Observer editorial. Available here.
- The Οbserver, Ex-Cambridge Analytica Director Unveils the Dark Reality of Data Industry. Available here.