20 July 2018

How Facebook is changing democracy

16 June 17 | Simon Kuper
Simon Kuper



Recently, a political operative came to my office, opened his laptop and showed me how he fought an election campaign on Facebook in a European country that he won’t let me name.


Let’s say that, in the UK Election you wanted to sway fortysomething women in a particular Kensington street who own homes abroad. You make a video of Theresa May saying “Brexit means Brexit” and you experiment with formats. One might be a question: “Is hard Brexit risky?” Another is a statement: “Hard Brexit: Insane.” You vary colours. You pay Facebook to send out the videos, and see which gets the most clicks. Then you retarget those who clicked it. Only they, and friends with whom they share it, will see your ad. So you can send an entirely different ad, maybe even a pro-Brexit one, to voters elsewhere. It’s practically a secret campaign. And it’s cheap. My friend spent about €50,000 to reach four million voters. His country’s election regulator will probably never find him, especially as he wasn’t working for a party.

These methods are going global. Matthew Oczkowski, head of product at Cambridge Analytica, the big data company that worked on Donald Trump's campaign and reportedly advised the Leave campaign in the UK’s Brexit referendum, says: “We have elections going in Africa and South America, and eastern and western Europe.” Facebook has changed democracy. That may help explain recent surprising election results. 

Targeting keeps getting more precise. Until about 2012, Facebook kept ads separate from user content and shared little user data with marketers. But then it floated on the stock market and investors demanded more ad revenue, especially from smartphones. Now ads appear in the user’s feed, amid media news items and updates from friends. Many users don’t even realise an ad is an ad. By now, too, Facebook knows everything about its users (which means most inhabitants of western countries). You may be living as heterosexual but it can deduce from your tastes that you’re gay. 

Facebook also lets marketers use more personal data. That helped Trump’s campaign to target, say, gun-loving high-school dropouts in Pittsburgh suburbs. Other Trump ads, showing Hillary Clinton in 1996 talking about criminal “super-predators”, were sent to African-Americans in swing states in an apparently successful effort to deter them from voting for her.

Targeting specific voters is more effective and cheaper than speaking on TV to the “general public”, which doesn’t exist anyway, says Charlélie Jourdan, marketer at Old Continent Agency in Brussels. Facebook targeting works especially well in districted political systems, such as the US and UK, where a few local votes can swing an election.

Fake news is merely a subset of the Facebook problem. On social networks, lying is rarely punished. You don’t have to source claims. Indeed, many voters probably trust home-made unbranded content more than mainstream media. And you can hire fake commenters to chatter about your post, thereby extending its life.

Sending out ads can also help a party shape its platform. If Facebook users like a Muslim ban, your candidate can run with it. Then you can ask the people who clicked your ads to give you money or attend your rallies. 

Trump’s campaign focused on Facebook much more than Clinton’s did. Similarly, the British Vote Leave campaign put 98 per cent of its £6.8m budget into digital advertising and sent out nearly one billion targeted digital ads, mostly on Facebook, according to its director Dominic Cummings. 

Many liberals now regard Cambridge Analytica (majority owned by Trump’s donor Robert Mercer) as an evil genius. They fear the company is targeting people based on their psychological make-up. It’s true that it’s possible to a certain extent to work out which users are introverts (they frequently use words such as “book”, “Pokémon” and “didn’t”) and which are disagreeable (they favour swear words), explains Sandra Matz, a psychologist at Cambridge University. You could tailor ads to each group. And Cambridge Analytica claims expertise in psychometrics. However, it didn’t use it in the US elections, Oczkowski said in a podcast interview with Michael Bossetta, a political scientist at Copenhagen University. Needing to reach 15 million persuadable voters, Trump’s campaign divided them into broad demographic segments rather than targeting individuals.

Oczkowski admits data targeting troubles him as “a libertarian, who believes strongly in privacy”. However, he adds, online users habitually sacrifice their privacy for convenience. That allows Cambridge Analytica to access, for instance, Americans’ credit-card data.

European rules on data privacy are much stricter. But electoral laws are outdated, and regulators aren’t big or savvy enough to catch transgressors. The UK’s Information Commissioner's Office is now investigating political campaigns including the Brexit referendum, saying: “We have concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s reported use of personal data.” But the referendum is already won. And anyone targeting an election from abroad is probably safe. My operative friend told me he only ever worried about one de facto regulator: Facebook itself. He warns: “This is where politics is now. If politics becomes as good at manipulating as consumer brands are, we’re all screwed.”


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