The fracas about a firm, Cambridge Analytica, misusing the data of over 87 million Facebook users to give an advantage to Donald Trump’s election campaign in the United States reveals the large role that social media sites like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn now play in all our lives. The way they can be and are used for surveillance, and the power they give to these large corporations is something entirely new.
The mining of information about our hopes and fears is not restricted to America alone. Media reports have shown how this has spread to politics worldwide. From India to Brazil, from Germany to the UK, Facebook employees have become de facto campaign workers. Many political parties from the BJP to the Congress have used the campaign skills of Facebook staff, sometimes to spread misinformation or so-called “fake news”. These have specially helped train right-wing political groups.
In India, a Facebook subsidiary, reports Bloomberg, helped develop the campaign strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “who now has more Facebook followers than any other world leader”. In the Philippines, it trained the strategists of President Rodrigo Duterte, known for encouraging extra-judicial killings, in how to most effectively use the platform. And in Germany it helped an anti-immigrant party to win its first Bundestag seats, according to its campaign staff. In 2015, it helped Mauricio Macri of Argentina, and Polish nationalist President Andrzej Duda became one of the first world leaders to live-stream his inauguration on the social network.
India is arguably Facebook’s most important market, with the nation recently edging out the United States as the company’s biggest user base. The number of users in India is growing twice as fast as in America. And that doesn’t even count the 200 million people who use the company’s WhatsApp messaging service in this country, more than anywhere else on the planet.
Google (which is a part of Alphabet) and Facebook are among the largest companies in the world. They offer their services for free to users but make their money by selling profiles, including psychological profiles of their users, to anyone who might be interested. They are able to manipulate electoral preferences by sending “fake news” to people who fit the required profile.
There are now 2.2 billion (2,200 million) Facebook users around the world, which is a little less than double the population of India, and indicates the influence that it can command. A December 2017 Bloomberg report says: “By the time of India’s 2014 elections, Narendra Modi relied heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit volunteers, who in turn spread his message on the social media. Since his election, Modi’s Facebook followers have risen to 43 million, almost twice Trump’s count.”
“As Modi’s social media reach grew, his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target harassment campaigns against his political rivals. India has become a hotbed for fake news, with one hoax story this year that circulated on WhatsApp leading to two separate mob beatings, resulting in seven deaths. In the past year, several journalists critical of the ruling party have been killed. Hindu extremists who back Modi’s party have used the social media to issue death threats against Muslims or critics of the government.”
It is significant that in her final editorial “In the age of false news” that Gauri Lankesh wrote for her newspaper before she was killed, she lamented how misinformation and propaganda on the social media were poisoning the political environment.
The social media’s role can go far beyond that. Though it is bound by law to maintain the secrecy of emails sent for free by it, Google and other email service providers offer no guarantee that they cannot be bullied by powerful intelligence agencies to reveal the confidential email contents to them. The relationship and sharing of information between large social media firms and the security agencies is a murky affair, which is unlikely to be exposed since it would tread on sensitive ground. The social media offers many advantages to users, but it also imposes many limitations on them.
A research paper, “Silicon Valley and the Threat to Democracy”, by Niall Fergusson, argues that the real threat to democracies around the globe is the social media’s inexorable and unavoidable destruction of common ground and shared perspective. It further goes on to say: “The reality is, no matter how Facebook, Google and Twitter tweak their algorithms, a new kind of politics has been born. There are now two kinds of politicians in this world: the kind that know how to use the social media as a campaign tool, and the ones who lose elections.”
Starting out as services that are able to fine tune characteristics of their millions of users to offer a well-defined set of consumers to their advertisers, the social media is able to do psychological profiles of each of their users, relating to their desires, hopes and deepest fears. This involves an ability to manipulate them by sending them fake news feeds, which makes it very powerful as it gives politicians what they want.
Only one guilty organisation, Cambridge Analytica, has so far been uncovered, and it has been told to go by Facebook. There must be many others which are involved in similar secret deals. The honeypot of manipulation of voters to benefit some political parties is too tempting for business interests to ignore, not because it gives them money but because it increases their political clout.
Images from the recent past showed how several authoritarian governments were caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, from Cairo to Tehran, armed with cellphones, took part in mini-rebellions that challenged their authority. Now governments around Europe, and elsewhere around the world, are more worried about the role that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have begun to play.