Manipulating Elections

The news that has garnered the most coverage this year in the world of technology concerns Facebook and its involvement with the enigmatic firm Cambridge Analytica. The case has been exhaustively reported in the British media, but it’s worth summarizing again: Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy specializing in electoral issues, accessed the Facebook profile information of over 50 million people in order to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The precise information they held on such a vast number of individuals enabled them to craft campaigns tailored to each person with the goal of influencing their vote. Needless to say, no one had given their consent for their private information to be used in this manner, especially not for the purpose of influencing voting decisions.

However, anyone familiar with Facebook’s business model would not be surprised that the platform could be used in this way, given that the advertising it shows us every second is automatically generated based on our “likes” and our posts. That such data could be used to influence voting is simply a natural extension. The issue here was that, theoretically, Cambridge Analytica accessed private information in an unauthorized manner, and when Facebook became aware of the deceit in 2015, it did nothing significant to stop and rectify the breach that had been created in its database.

The matter has escalated to the point where last week Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, had to testify before the U.S. Congress, which has left a long trail of humorous memes on the internet and a sense that social networks have once again been used to undermine democratic processes. And I say “once again” because we have been dealing with another scandal involving Russian interference to destabilize the same elections, where Facebook was used to bombard very specific groups of the American population with fake news.

It seems we are awakening to a new reality in which a corporate giant has the capacity, directly or indirectly, to influence the outcome of elections. The reach seems endless, with reports that the same modus operandi has been used in the United Kingdom around the Brexit issue, in Kenya to manipulate the 2017 elections, and by the PRI in Mexico to influence this year’s elections.

The challenge that Facebook poses to elections is novel due to the global reach it has and the sophistication with which it can precisely fabricate and distribute tailor-made messages that influence the electorate’s opinion. It seems the question of how to control this extraordinary power will not have a simple solution, but there are already voices pointing to the even more complex and serious problem of how to regulate the entire web of social networks, so they do not continue to bully the electoral processes. The problem is enormous when one recognizes that the tech companies behind all these platforms are not simply garage startups run by idealistic youths in hoodies but rather corporations valued in billions of dollars and more interested in maintaining their stock price trend than in helping their fellow man. The days of Silicon Valley’s “do no evil” are long gone.

However, I think it would be naive to say that this represents a total break from the way we have done things up to now. All the media we use to distribute information have always served to amplify content that is often far from balanced and that at the end of the day have ended up swaying the results of elections year after year. Now, it’s not about becoming paranoid about this issue, or looking for conspiracy theories at every turn. It’s fair to admit that disseminating information—whether produced by professionals or merely enthusiasts—has a net positive effect on society. But it would be dangerous to ignore that behind all the machinery we use to connect, there are particular interests that benefit from having such an efficient way to influence the outcome of elections.

It wasn’t Facebook, nor WhatsApp chains, nor the incendiary messages on Twitter that have come to disrupt elections but rather the elections themselves that have always been fragile in the face of the onslaughts of great communicators. By the 1828 American presidential elections, the two candidates in dispute, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, had realized that the fight was not only in the square but also in the newspapers and gazettes. Supported by networks of informants, both dedicated themselves to unearthing all kinds of rumors and controversial stories that were later published on the front pages of newspapers. About Jackson: that he had been a terribly cruel general in the Battle of New Orleans, that his wife was living in bigamy with him, that he couldn’t spell. And about Adams: that he was an aristocrat, that he didn’t care about the people, that he had given an American girl as a gift to the Tsar of Russia when he had been ambassador there.

After the post I wrote last week in which I said I do not plan to vote in the upcoming elections, several friends have asked me what alternative I propose. And although I’ve been working here in London for a couple of months with a group of people seeking to change the way rulers are chosen, and I have a preference for how it might be done, I want to first discuss what are the deficiencies of the system we use today. Having clarity on what is failing now, perhaps we can suggest more precisely improvements in the design of that social technology.

Can we design a democratic system for choosing our rulers that is not susceptible to manipulation by the major communication platforms?

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