Political campaigns on social media subvert political autonomy of citizens

Article by Bailey Alexander May, a recent graduate with a BA in Social and Political Sciences from University of York, United Kingdom.


The conception and practice of democracies across the world are arguably becoming increasingly blurred. Why? Because the big data processing capabilities of artificial intelligence (or AI) is reshaping what it means to drive political campaigns. Social media has become a key battleground where this has unfolded. Gone are the days of the soapbox. Welcome to the age of the digital black box. This piece will try and explain this in more detail while highlighting the reason why citizens and governments should be more concerned about this and what this means for future policy considerations.

It would be hard for many people to disagree with the statement that social media has become one of the most influential sequences of technologies that exist today. It has become a focal point for millions of people’s daily social interactions. It is an intangible archive of people’s memories, experiences, and emotions cemented in time for as long as the servers continue to exist. However, not many people truly understand the extent to which their likes, shares, and interests are converted into data and used to produce tailored, and in some cases, coercive content.

LinkedIn uses AI-based algorithms to match the profile data of its user with job opportunities that correlate closely with that person’s skill set and experience. Instagram and Twitter, based on user data, suggest personalized content to its users using AI-based algorithms. Furniture company West Elm collaborated with ClarifAI to build an AI-infused Pinterest-like app that converted user data on the app to produce product suggestions tailored to suit extremely specific user preferences. These are all great examples of how AI infused into social media platforms can benefit its users by enabling them to access better services.

As a result of living in a digitalized world our society is increasingly getting controlled by data. Data, in its raw form, is pretty meaningless. Inputted into and manipulated via AI is how the real insights are generated. AI’s ability to analyze and mine data is what has attributed such high value to online user data sets today. These data sets could be used for targeted advertisements and personalized content for online users. It has become crucial to product advertising as well as running political campaigns as it allows for extremely precise targeting. Companies and politicians spend ludicrous amounts of money to access and use these advertising services.

How does this subvert the political autonomy of citizens?

Social media (powered by AI and big data) is a double-edged sword. The more aligned content and product suggestions are to user preferences expressed on social media, the more likely users are to engage with such content and buy such products. And in the economy where access to use these social media sites is free, the money is made behind the online feeds. Social media has become a marketplace where human behaviour is commodified and traded. Facebook is a billion-dollar company for a reason, and people should fully understand how important their data are to the success of these companies.

Facebook has created an application called “Facebook for Government, Politics & Advocacy” that has gotten into a lot of notoriety. This application enables government officials and politicians to connect with the electorate via advertisements and content placement to the desired target audience they have defined. So, what does what does this mean for citizens in a democracy?

Political campaigning using targeted advertisements allows for manipulation of the electorate by influencing people to think and vote in a particular way. These online campaigns slip perfectly into users’ feeds due to the nature of the algorithmic beast. Users are protected from alternative views as they are protected by their own “filter bubble” on social media. They only get to see and consume what aligns with their interests and likes; the dislikes are filtered out.

This restriction on the free flow of information to users’ feeds could lead to a perpetual cycle of political indoctrination on social media, which becomes more and more effective as we go on to live our lives increasingly through our online interactions. This is what could seriously defeat the idea of a free, informed citizenry making autonomous political choices.

Simply put, the subversion of the political autonomy of citizens on social media occurs through political campaigning morphing into a technique of data manipulation.

So, what should be done?

Any technology that can be used to manipulate voter preferences should be a great concern for any democracy that intends to secure its legitimacy.

Let’s take the United Kingdom for example. The matter was discussed at some length in the UK House of Commons and House of Lords. In the House of Lords, The Lord Bishop of Oxford had stated: “AI is now routinely used to drive micro-advertising in political debate, referenda, and elections across the world, reshaping political discourse and perceptions of truth.” Paul Flynn, a member of the Labour Party in the House of commons had expressed similar concerns over how social media sites were influencing voters.

Yet, there wasn’t a consensus on the acceptance of harm that was taking place. Lord Ashton of Hyde argued, “We have seen no evidence that these or other techniques have been used to interfere successfully in the UK’s democratic processes…”

These debates happened not too long ago (around mid-2018). Before and after, social media moguls like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook received a lot of flak from the Congress in the United States and the European Parliament for running micro-targeted political advertisements. Even so, that didn’t seem to stop Zuckerberg. In January, 2019 Facebook did revise its political advertisements policy; but it merely gave its users the option to view fewer advertisements.

Even so, Facebook’s policy of valuing the personal discretion of its users in choosing which politicial advertisements they wish to see might turn out to be better than Twitter’s blanket banning and Google’s limited targeting of these advertisements. Alongside, Facebook also promised to increase the transparency of its politicial advertisements, promising to reveal to its users where an advertisement came from, who owned it, and how it ended up on their feed. In this way, Facebook users might have a better grasp of the nature of the political advertisements that appear on their feed.

That said, only time will tell if more needs to be done to secure the political autonomy of citizens to secure the political autonomy of citizens.

Democracy has always been under threat in a multitude of ways. If you are a sympathizer of Plato, you probably think democracy died a very long time ago. However, the unprecedented power that social media has bestowed on politicians and governments to influence voters is one which must not be ignored if the underpinnings of democracy are to be preserved.