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Should Governments Intervene to Stop Voter Manipulation via Social Media?

Why Social Media Continues To Drive Voter Divide Despite Learning Hard Lessons From the 2016 Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Facebook Founder, Mark Zuckerberg

Amid the jarring sounds of pugnacious rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum, the 2016 election cycle was shaped by the emergence of an insidious trend. For the first time in history, political expression was primarily channeled through social media platforms.

As free speech is protected by most industrialized nations, voters felt compelled to express their views openly to the general public. Candidates used social media to communicate their messages around the globe. Individuals felt comfortable posting, retweeting, and sharing controversial statements that simultaneously enraged and appeased their friends and followers.

The world, it seems, would never be the same.

Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower, Christopher Wylie

As the popularity of social media platforms skyrocketed, a bombshell report sent shockwaves through the international community. On May 16, 2018, Christopher Wylie—a former employee of the U.K. based data harvesting company Cambridge Analytica—testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, alleging that the company harvested millions of Facebook users’ personal data.

In a moment that shocked journalists to the core, Wylie released a cache of documents that described the inner workings of Cambridge Analytica, detailing how the company created targeted disinformation campaigns based on the psychological profiles of Facebook users.

For context, Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm that helped influence several elections around the world. Lead by CEO Alexander Nix, the company is credited with propelling President Donald Trump to victory in 2016.

Following Wylie’s testimony, many people are understandably concerned for the future of democracy.

Two years after the fall of Cambridge Analytica, as Americans decide who they will vote for in the November 3rd presidential election, social media platforms continue to dominate the world’s political landscape. Day after day, users from nearly every country on the planet continue to consume distorted information that either affirms or challenges their belief systems.

The acrid odor of hatred that permeated our homes in 2016 continues to sting our olfactory senses today.

Suffice it to say, the events that unfolded in the last presidential election cycle continue to define who we are as a country, who we want to be as individuals, and who we will become in the future. In short, we have become the most opinionated, angry, and intolerant versions of ourselves.

It's evident that social media is now an ingrained part of modern society. Facebook recently reported that it has 2.6 billion global users on its platform; for Twitter, that number is 330 million; Instagram, 112.5 million. These numbers suggest that political participation on social media cannot and should not be prohibited.

Therefore, the question we must answer is whether or not the government should intervene to curb voter manipulation on highly-popular media outlets.

As supported by extensive research, governments should do everything within its power to stop voter manipulation because the practice is undemocratic, unconstitutional, and unsustainable.

First of all, using proprietary algorithms to create highly individualized targeted advertisements and social media content designed explicitly to “rile up” and emotionally engage persuadable voters leads to the unprecedented effect of spreading massive disinformation—effectively eroding the fabric of our democracy.

As exemplified by many years of civilization, the cornerstone of freedom is truth. A vibrant democracy requires both sides of the political spectrum to have a basic agreement and understanding of the facts.

We may disagree on the solution to the problem, but we cannot disagree on what the problem is and expect to survive as a democracy.

Moreover, how can the electorate form organic opinions if the tactics previously used by Cambridge Analytica continue to define virtual advertisement? The simple answer is that it cannot, and whistleblowers are acknowledging the threat it poses to world peace.

As if Christopher Wylie’s testimony wasn’t explosive enough, more than 100,000 documents released by Brittany Kaiser reveal that the company misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles over the course of several months.

Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser

Kaiser, an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, recently stated that “It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse. I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.” Kaiser has also claimed that the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger global operation that involved many sectors of government... And we have every reason to believe her.

Several news sources have validated Kaiser’s testimony. There are reports that the now defunct firm engaged in an operation to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale.” In fact, Christopher Steele—a former British intelligence officer—fears the failure to properly punish bad actors means that the prospects for manipulation of this year’s election are even worse than in 2016.

While several investigative reporters have denounced the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal as a threat to our Constitutional Republic, some believe that targeted advertisement is purely a private sector issue. According to several pundits, Cambridge Analytica did not force anyone to vote for a particular candidate, or even think a certain way.

What many people do not understand, however, is that our unregulated digital landscape fosters extremist discussions that only undermines productive discourse. People are becoming baffled, enraged, and even depressed about events that may or may not be occurring in real life. For this reason, we must pass statutes that criminalize harvesting data on social media websites for political purposes. This will make it difficult to intentionally spread misinformation to the general public.

Aside from the practice being undemocratic, voter manipulation is also clearly unconstitutional.

While there is no legal precedent for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are specific sections in the Constitution that prohibit the collection of private information. For instance, the Fourth Amendment explicitly states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”. With this in mind, legal analysts concur that government wiretapping, hacking, and seizure of digital property is in direct violation with the Fourth Amendment. Because lawmakers and their associates hired the Cambridge Analytica team to aide their campaigns, this issue should not be regarded as a mere corporate concern.

In response to this argument, legal experts suggest that the Fourth Amendment does not encompass the seizure of digital technology. After all, the Fourth Amendment was ratified over 200 years before the invention of the internet. So, neither did Cambridge Analytica violate statutory law nor constitutional law.

It is important to acknowledge that harvesting data is not a felony. In fact, there isn’t a single statute that prohibits political data harvesting and targeted content feeds on social media platforms. However, it is still important for the culprits behind the data hack to be held accountable. For this reason, it is imperative we either pass a law criminalizing data profiling, or file a lawsuit against the current and former executives of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and other social media companies that continue to engage in the practice.

Finally, voter manipulation through disinformation is unsustainable. Collecting data for political purposes jeopardizes the integrity of democratic elections.

When Cambridge Analytica waded into American politics in early 2016, its major objective was to give conservatives an advantage over their liberal counterparts. In order to do this, the company developed “a 120-question survey that seeks to probe personality,” as CEO Alexander Nix explained to NPR in the ripe months of the campaign season. This questionnaire allowed researchers to gather data on hundreds of thousands of Facebook users and their friend networks who did not explicitly give permission to be data mined. Eventually, the firm sold this information to several Republican campaigns leading up to the general election. For instance, Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign purchased data from Cambridge Analytica to help him win the Iowa caucus. News sources confirm that President Donald Trump’s campaign used data to sway undecided voters in his direction. Aside from American politics, Cambridge Analytica is credited with aiding several right-wing organizations around the globe including Brazil, Myanmar, and the Brexit campaign.

The monetization of voter attention is a dangerous practice that will lead to the erosion of our democracy. Elections in the United States—as well as in countries around the world—are expected to be operated fairly.

What will happen if the legislative, executive, and judicial branches continue to be bought out by political organizations? More specifically, when will the American people lose faith in the electoral process if they know elections can be swayed by digital misinformation? How will Americans react to the news that the UK Government classified this type of advertising technology as weapons-grade psyops?

In response to this argument, many contend that employing the Cambridge Analytica team was a simple financial transaction; just as politicians hire political consultants, the Cruz and Trump campaigns hired a digital communications team to help them win the White House.

Furthermore, they cite Citizens United v. FEC as legal justification for allowing campaigns to hire companies like Cambridge Analytica. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting the amount of money corporations can spend on political advertising.

In conclusion, while these are valid prima facie legal arguments, it is evident that governments should intervene to stop voter manipulation on social media platforms as it opens the door to massive fraud, corruption, and dishonesty that can erode the confidence of the American people.

Article Written by Jett James Pruitt

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