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Technology and democracy

Written By: - Date published: 7:30 am, April 26th, 2016 - 23 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, internet, journalism, Media - Tags: , , , ,

Interesting piece in The Guardian recently:

You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him?

The company’s dominance means it can easily manipulate voter behavior. Though it claims it won’t, just the possibility is a threat to democracy

While the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is a terrifying one, perhaps this is scarier: Facebook could use its unprecedented powers to tilt the 2016 presidential election away from him – and the social network’s employees have apparently openly discussed whether they should do so.

As Gizmodo reported on Friday, “Last month, some Facebook employees used a company poll to ask [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg whether the company should try ‘to help prevent President Trump in 2017’.”

This is not just idle speculation.

Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explained in 2010 how “Facebook could decide an election without anyone ever finding out”, after the tech giant secretly conducted a test in which they were able to allegedly increase voter turnout by 340,000 votes around the country on election day simply by showing users a photo of someone they knew saying “I voted”.

…Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said, in 2014, “I want to be clear – Facebook can’t control emotions and cannot and will not try to control emotions.” She added: “Facebook would never try to control elections.” Her comments came right after a controversial study conducted by Facebook became public. It showed that, in fact, the company had secretly manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 people. … Earlier this year, the Guardian reported on the treasure trove of data Facebook holds on hundreds of millions of voters and how it is already allowing presidential candidates to exploit it in different ways

And in a Politico Magazine piece entitled “How Google could rig the 2016 election”, research psychologist Robert Epstein described how a study he co-authored in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups – with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated.”

OK, but is this different from what we have now, with Rupert Murdoch, the constant bombardment of conservative media and talkback radio? The author of this piece thinks so:

To be sure, many corporations, including broadcasters and media organisations, have used their vast power to influence elections in all sorts of ways in the past: whether it’s through money, advertising, editorials, or simply the way they present the news. But at no time has one company held so much influence over a large swath of the population – 40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook – while also having the ability to make changes invisibly.

… one organisation having the means to tilt elections one way or another a dangerous innovation. Once started, it would be hard to control. In this specific case, a majority of the public might approve of the results. But do we really want future elections around the world to be decided by the political persuasions of Mark Zuckerberg, or the faceless engineers that control what pops up in your news feed?

I’ve pondered this for a while. The power of social media is different from that of old media. Filtering your peer group is much subtler, and could be much more persuasive than regular media. Being something of a cynic, I think it is only a matter of time before Facebook / Google start using their powers of persuasion, then selling them to the highest bidder. But, while it will be more effective, I’m still not sure that it is qualitatively different from the situation that we already have. Is there any reason to fear “faceless engineers” more than “faceless journalists”?



For more in a similar vein see – Tech titans are busy privatising our data, “When Facebook and Google finally destroy the competition, a new age of feudalism will arrive”…

23 comments on “Technology and democracy”

  1. One Anonymous Bloke 1

    What other techniques are already in use?

    How many people would have to be involved in the manipulation? Is it a plausible conspiracy to pull off without, y’know, jailtime?

  2. stunnedmullett 2

    Labour should go hard on Facebook and twitter – that’ll be sure to get the missing million.

    • Colonial Viper 2.1

      Imagine if they had done that in 2014 with raising the retirement age and CGT’ing your holiday bach.

  3. Sirenia 3

    I heard that the Tories used such data in their last UK election campaign. It is very expensive but very easy to profile people and target election material to them. I expect the Nats with their millions of dollars in donor funds are already looking at something similar.

  4. George Hendry 4

    “The world’s greatest crimes (like invasions, genocides, banks too big to be allowed to fail, etc) are never against any law that matters.”

    On this site poll and election related blogposts often elicit the longest discussion threads. In such threads comments are practically never made about how polls/elections could be/have already been shown to be manipulated and rigged. Instead, discussion based on provided figures seems to take their accuracy and trustworthiness for granted.

    When it becomes accepted that poll news could be just as full of lies as what the bought and sold media supply on other topics, only then will it be possible to start deselecting a government like this one.

    • Phil 4.1

      In such threads comments are practically never made about how polls/elections could be/have already been shown to be manipulated and rigged.

      Are you new here?
      I haven’t seen a poll post on here, or kiwiblog, or the DimPost, or any other NZ political-blog, where at least half a dozen people are commenting on how it’s all lies and polls are rubbish.

      But here’s the thing: polls (in NZ specifically, but globally more generally) are still actually pretty good at getting election results right. The accuracy of polling data out of the US primary season over the last few months is a good example of this.

      • Augustus 4.1.1

        Polls tend to get election results “right” about a week or 24 hours prior to the actual election. A year or even a month out, there is no checking whatsoever how accurate they might have been. They can however be used to create a perception, which is what the post alludes to?

        • Phil 4.1.1.1

          Polls tend to get election results “right” about a week or 24 hours prior to the actual election. A year or even a month out, there is no checking whatsoever how accurate they might have been.

          Of course polling results are not predictive a month or more out – voters are still changing their mind!

          They’re also not designed, nor ever purport to be, “predictive” far in advance. That’s just a straw-man put up by critics of polling who want to prey on ignorance. Polling is all about understanding the intentions of the nation/state/region today.

  5. Incognito 5

    Very good topic & post.

    I see this as one more reason to avoid electronic voting. Keep it separated and different, mentally and physically, from the internet. Booths should be a device-free zone IMO. Yes, unlikely to happen, I know; even in public swimming pools people walk around with phones taking photos of their offspring …

  6. The lost sheep 6

    As Orwell said, Propaganda only works on those who are already inclined to agree with the message.
    Undecided voters have the right to accept any influence they choose. They can’t be forced to do something they don’t actively decide to agree with.
    It’s no conspiracy. It’s freedom.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 6.1

      You clearly haven’t even glanced at the relevant research: the effect it claims works on undecided voters. It’s a Psychology paper, so by no means reliable, and it would help your argument if you actually knew what it said, no?

    • weka 6.2

      “They can’t be forced to do something they don’t actively decide to agree with.”

      Strawman, given that no-one is talking about force.

      You are also missing the fact that people can be influenced unconsciously.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 6.2.1

        Sheep actively chooses to employ these feeble, unconvincing ‘arguments’. Cretinhood has nothing to do with it.

  7. mac1 7

    If anyone should doubt that this National government will not use its power to influence elections, then consider that it has decided not to allow enrolments on Election Day at the booths. Reason given? Too much work, and confusing, for the booth officials. 2 million voted on election day itself, and 1.35% would make it too difficult, according to the Minister.

    That’s 402 per electorate. That’s on average 40 per hour throughout an electorate.

    In 2005. there were 6100 booths operating. That would mean about 6100 booths processing 27000 unenrolled. That is 4.4 persons over the entire 10 hour day for each booth.

    That is too difficult for the resources of the State?

    There are officials already dedicated to special votes processing in each polling place.

    Result in 2014? 27,000 had their votes disallowed. That number is about what is required to elect a list MP. Close elections could be determined simply by this ploy.

    • James 7.1

      Have people ever been able to register on polling day?

      If Labour had this under their government – then perhaps there is something to the argument that it shouldn’t be allowed and that both governments were right.

      Of course – you could put on a tin foil hat and say is just National trying to influence elections.

      • Liberal Realist 7.1.1

        Have people ever been able to register on polling day?

        Yes they have. I had to register at the polling booth for the 05 election which allowed me to cast a special vote.

        If Labour had this under their government – then perhaps there is something to the argument that it shouldn’t be allowed and that both governments were right.

        Yes it should be allowed, it’s called democracy.

        Of course – you could put on a tin foil hat and say is just National trying to influence elections.

        Do you believe your own bullshit? JK could put on one his many hats (I’m sure he has a tinfoil hat in the collection, w ponytail to boot) and proclaim honestly that National use Crosby Textor to assist them with influencing elections. It’s the truth, yes?

      • mac1 7.1.2

        So, James, considering that it was possible in the past, and considering that the resources of the state are vast, and considering that democracy and the vote is so important, why then do you think that National do not now allow election day enrolment?

        Administrative difficulty? As Key and his ministers are fond of saying, “I can find you another opinion on that……”

        Tin foil hats not required to spot electoral advantage to National in this one. Causal relationship or ‘unfortunate’ corollary?

  8. Bill 8

    What was that line from the old Stranglers song? “Tell you what they’re gonna do ’cause they’re doin it already” (Something like that).

    Anyway, between the double (triple?) whammy of a loaded press, constricted google searches and the bias of the press already being amplified through face book ‘likes’ arriving on your feed from people you already have a vague something in common with …

    Story from a while back. Some left leaning guy apparently and quite deliberately used his facebook page to engage with right wingers. Facebook stepped in. I can’t quite remember the details of how they blocked him…removed screeds of ‘friends’ or some such.

    Google. Ever tried searching Kevin Anderson? I’ve done it quite a lot for climate change info. What I’ve never clicked on is any page to do with a tennis player called Kevin Anderson. Yet (and remembering google is meant to ‘target’ your searches based on previous searches – a problem in and of itself), every time I google Kevin Anderson, I have to specify CC or all I get is an entire page of Kevin Anderson the tennis player.

    Our access to info is already heavily proscribed and I’ve no doubt a huge amount of manipulative imagery (both deliberate and unintentional, noticed and subliminal) is flooding through us from our computer screens just as it has, for years, from our TV screens. (K – I know no-one watches TV anymore…I think…hope. fuck. Do people still watch TV?)

  9. Phil 9

    The power of social media is different from that of old media. Filtering your peer group is much subtler, and could be much more persuasive than regular media.

    There’s a lot of recent, really interesting, study into how social networks have evolved. The overriding takeaway for me is that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (and even Wikipedia!) have coalesced into a vehicle for a relatively small number of powerful individuals/entities to widely disseminate information to a mostly passive (i.e consumers, not producers of content) audience.

    In other words: social networking sites act like traditional media.

  10. James 10

    Really interesting post.

    it is a huge concern – and its only going to get more significant.

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