Elections in the time of social media

Wednesday, 11 September 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Elections Commission has stepped up to push organisations posting about politics on social media platforms such as Facebook to abide by Sri Lankan laws, and refrain from mudslinging and misinformation campaigns that could be used to swing voters at an upcoming election. This is a positive step, albeit, one that will yield limited results, as democracies around the world grapple with how to manage massive technology companies beyond their jurisdiction.  

A free and fair election is one of the essential components of a democracy. For this to happen at a genuine level, people have to be able to make up their minds as they wish, after considering as much credible information as possible. But the rise of companies that use technology mined from digital media to persuade people, without them even knowing how they are being manipulated, has become a serious concern. 

Many have heard of Cambridge Analytica, the now defunct data analysis company, and how they worked to influence voters in the Brexit campaign. Before that, they were instrumental in the election of Donald Trump to the White House. Cambridge Analytica in its heyday used to claim it could harness 5000 data points on each voter, which could be used to measure his or her personality and influence behaviour. The company then sold their services to dozens of countries around the world, including Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Columbia. 

This mining of social media to persuade voters without their knowledge, together with decreased reliance on mainstream media, has been credited with the rise of authoritarian governments around the world. What is more problematic is that it can be done in so many ways, including through apps people download for fun, or even used for campaigning.  

Fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns are especially problematic in democratic systems, and there is growing debate on how to address these issues, without undermining the benefits of digital media. In order to maintain an open, democratic system, it is important that government, business, and consumers work together to solve these problems. The first step should be to support the existing mainstream media to be more empowered and ethical. 

People, especially less-informed segments of society with an inherent bias of views, would eagerly embrace and believe fake news and mistrust mainstream media, which they could see as unreliable or being influenced by other agendas. This is why is it critical to promote the independence of newspapers and other media in a meaningful way, so that people have a source of information they can trust. 

Undermining media independence by pushing them to be politically partisan undermines this confidence. Between news coverage they don’t like, and fake news that is manipulative in nature, many people question the accuracy of their news. This decline in public trust in media is dangerous for democracies.  This gap has manifested in questionable election results, political change, and communal tensions around the world. Such developments have complicated the manner in which people hold leaders accountable, and the way in which the political system operates.

In election campaigns around the world, social media is playing an increasingly dominant role. Unfortunately, legal protections are nowhere near where they should be to push multi-billion dollar companies such as Facebook to be accountable in smaller countries. Sri Lanka has always been proud of its democracy, and this cannot be lost, because the consequences will be felt by everyone.