Friday, March 06, 2020

Social Media Shaping Political Opinion and Impacting Poll Campaigns

Dipika Mohinani,

Image source: Boston University

Diminishing readership of the print media and the entry of smartphones have strengthened social media’s role in shaping political narratives. In a way, it has become a linkage between the governing body and those who are governed, with people feeling increasingly that they can connect on an individual basis with their chosen representatives. In recent years, many politicians have taken to social media to connect with the general masses. Sites like twitter and Facebook have managed to change the political culture setting new trends in politics and also being used as spaces for open debates. Agendas are progressively being mobilised through tweets, posts and visual effects that are designed specifically to diverge a person’s attention to a specific narrative.
The activities on social media, despite being engaging and informative, are unregulated. There is close to negligible surveillance of the information spread over the internet. The recent trend of generating “fake news” has given rise to various fact-checking agencies, especially during election campaigns. Voter behaviour can be manipulated through cyber intervention via social platforms and messaging applications. Political parties have been criticised for distributing videos, audios, images, articles, graphics and posts through means that are unaccounted for by the government. Additionally, specific groups are easily targeted based on their age, location coupled with a plethora of available information related to political and religious inclinations, interests, hobbies, preferences and lifestyle. Even simple daily activities like purchasing, interests, hobbies and likes can indicate political inclinations and orientation of a user through data algorithms. Targeted content or tailor-made messages find acceptance among a group of voters as it is precisely relevant to their concerns and preferences.
In 2016, during US President Donald Trump’s campaigning, Cambridge Analytica (a political campaigning agency) was accused of harnessing information from Facebook to produce ads targeting voters as part of their campaigns. It came under criticism as private agencies like Facebook are not allowed to collect data without the consent of the users although data can be taken from publically and commercially available sources. Similarly, in India, fake news was used to grab voters’ attention. Expenses made on digital advertising are not transparent, making the situation worrisome.
This is largely a human vs technology issue and developing a data protection framework worldwide is a necessity. Security features like end-to-end encryption in messaging services enhance privacy of the users, nonetheless are susceptible to misuse according to the government. The other side of the coin being complete government control over internet usage can be alarming. Regulating news does not necessarily imply that the interests of an individual will be served by the governments. Independence of the private sector and free speech must be preserved. Against the same backdrop, harms caused by “hate speech” or “fake news” could be dealt in a more systematic manner within the jurisdiction of the government, making every action accountable. Private firms must also closely work towards data protection. Extensive awareness among the masses through education camps is a priority in today’s times. It should not only be a job of the government or big private corporates, but also of individuals and communities to safeguard their own rights and duties. 

Dipika Mohinani is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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