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The Weaponization of Social Media for Political Gain

29 November 2019
Person holding black iPhone

The impact of social media usage on society in the 21st century is something that cannot be understated: it has totally transformed the way in which we view and interact with those around us.  Facebook and Twitter are two of the corporate giants at the forefront of this phenomenon, with the former having snapped up rivals Instagram and WhatsApp in recent years. With over 2.3 billion monthly users across its family of networks and a further 320 million on Twitter, the influence of these two for-profit, undemocratic organisations alone is at best alarming for a number of reasons.

Given that internet users are now spending on average 2 hours and 22 minutes a day on such services, it should come as no surprise that political figures are seeking to harness the power of social media to shape the direction of their countries. In the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump was calculated to have utilized Twitter for an estimated $2.2 billion of free media coverage, and more recently we’ve seen the emergence of candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the opposite end of the political spectrum, whose election success can be partially attributed to her substantial online presence. It was noted by Axios that the young democrat had "as much social media clout as her fellow freshman Democrats combined".

Unfortunately, due to the infancy of social media as a political platform, lawmakers have not yet been able to adapt, leaving these sites largely unregulated and thus pretty much entirely self-governed. Seeing as the companies behind them are for-profit in nature, they tend to look out for their own interests rather than for the greater good. It’s this self-governance that has led to them taking very different stances on the matter, with Twitter implementing a blanket ban on all political advertising from November this year, and Facebook deciding to refrain from fact checking or removing any ads at all. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, commented that “we don’t believe … that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny”.

One of the issues with Facebook’s hands-off approach is that when there’s a lot on the line, such as in major, democratic elections, people will do whatever it takes to win. With no interference or consequence, will there be anyone to prevent politicians from lying about their polling figures and economic achievements? While we must absolutely recognise the importance of freedom of speech, we must also be aware of the dangers in allowing the spread of both blatant and subtle misinformation without consequence.

To make matters worse, it’s not just the candidates themselves who are likely to exploit this; there has been a consistent stream of reports since the 2016 US election indicating that there was significant Russian meddling in an attempt to impact the final election result, which included the use of Russian ‘troll farms’ to create thousands of fake online social media accounts. These accounts were used to post pro-Trump and anti-Clinton propoganda with the intention of rigging the election and destabilising the nation. Looking at the current state of politics in America, it’s not far fetched to say they were successful - are Facebook really willing to continue turning a blind eye to the illegitimate, political exploitation of social media?

People raising their hands

On the other hand, Twitter’s strategy of implementing a complete political advertising ban also has its flaws. While comfort can be had in the knowledge that it will protect us from some of the dangers related to the spread of misinformation highlighted above, it has the unintended consequence of entrenching the establishment and preventing newer candidates from reaching mass audiences. Social media campaigning is typically far cheaper than running ads on more traditional platforms such as  television, as the strategies used on these sites, from growing a following to making regular posts, are far more accessible than the purchase of costly premium advertising slots on popular shows and newspapers. Without the backing of an existing supporter base or a wealthy corporation, challenger candidates will struggle to raise the funds required to run an effective campaign.

Another valid concern with this approach is that it’s not always black and white as to whether a topic is political or not - take, for instance, healthcare policies and topical women’s issues such as abortion. Whether they are political or not, it’ll be a decision made ultimately by Twitter alone, a private company, acting in its own interests and doing so on a case-by-case basis. One could make the argument that this isn’t any more democratic or fair than Facebook’s more idle stance.

There’s almost certainly a more appropriate middle ground to be had somewhere in between, whether that’s a solution which involves the use of modern technology such as machine learning to help identify, categorise and verify political adverts fairly (although that could lead to a host of other issues, or a more proactive method utilizing a neutral, fact-checking team. In any case, it’s hard to blame either platform for their current resolutions - Facebook generates far too much money from paid political adverts to turn down and, considering its revenue from political adverts pales in comparison, it was a smart PR move for Twitter to capitalise on the negative publicity Facebook were receiving for theirs and announce the opposite.