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Influencing Electoral Outcomes: The Ugly Face of Facebook

Munish Sharma is Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 26, 2018

    Free and fair elections are the backbone of a democratic system of governance, and they are often celebrated as the “festival of democracy”. Election campaigns of political parties and candidates employ a wide variety of strategies and tactics to influence voters. The digital era has added a whole new flavour, be it the eye-catching colossal digital campaigns or instances of foreign governments interfering in the electoral process. Last year, the Presidential elections in both the US and France were controversial due to hacking incidents and data leaks at the campaigns of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and En Marche, respectively. In general, cyber means of intervention appear to be becoming an inevitable part of the electoral process. The Cambridge Analytica incident proves that India is no exception to this trend. During the next general elections in 2019, the Election Commission of India has an uphill task to thwart both external interference and the abuse of social media platforms to influence voter behaviour.

    While there is a long history of external interference in elections both through covert and overt means, digital platforms add a new dimension. News and online content over digital platforms can spread at lightning speed, without paying heed to the credibility or authenticity of the source. Moreover, social media platforms generate vast amounts of data related to the socio-economic conditions, purchasing behaviour, interests, hobbies, and political inclinations or orientations of the users. These details are captured and treasured for commercial purposes. Business analytics feed on this data to generate business intelligence and derive monetary benefits for informed decision making. Present day electoral campaigns are also data driven and they are well-funded to let the campaigners harness data for their own political advantage. Data analytics tools can harvest data from user profiles and sift through the trove to support research, augment targeted campaigns and help political parties in assessing and evaluating their performance. These have been quite effective in targeting swing voters and behaviour forecasting.

    As the popularity of social media platforms hits new heights, Facebook and Twitter in particular have been under the scanner of both intelligence agencies and election watchdogs. With close to 2.2 billion active users (by the end of 2017), Facebook alone sits on a stockpile of data which could be used to drive election campaigns towards any preferred outcome. Data in itself is worthless, but data science and the corresponding analytical tools turn it into a goldmine for both businesses and political strategists in the digital age.

    Cambridge Analytica, the London-based political consultancy firm presently under the scanner, has an eight-year-old association with Indian elections. It undertook an in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar Assembly Election in 2010 and, as per the case study details on its website, “the client (political party) achieved a landslide victory, with over 90 percent of total seats targeted by Cambridge Analytica being won.”1 This was carried out through Ovleno Business Intelligence, which is an Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories. The firm had hit media headlines for its association with Donald Trump’s election campaign, which it has referred to as “A Full-Scale Data-Driven Digital Campaign”. Bringing together the expertise of data scientists, researchers, strategists and content writers in three integrated teams (research, data science, and digital marketing), Cambridge Analytica’s campaign helped Trump win the elections.2 The above case studies, mentioned in the Cambridge Analytica website, are prime examples of the vital role data science has begun to play especially in devising techniques to change voter behaviour in the targeted population or audience.

    Facebook has played a central role in this entire episode. In a statement, Facebook has accepted that in 2015 a research app for psychologists with the name “thisisyourdigitallife”, developed by a psychology professor at Cambridge University, was used for commercial purposes by Cambridge Analytica and other firms in violation of its platform policies. The app, meant for personality prediction, had around 270,000 downloads. Users revealed content related to their likes, preferences, and their own social circles according to their privacy settings.3 The access to Facebook content, in technical terms, was legitimate and through proper channels but the information was passed on to third parties likes Cambridge Analytica and Eunoia Technologies, which exploited it for commercial gains. However, Cambridge Analytica has outright denied allegations of using Facebook data as part of the services rendered to the Trump presidential campaign and while working on the Brexit referendum in the UK.4

    As of January 2018, with 250 million users, India is the largest user-base for Facebook. It is also an important tool for the government to take forward its flagship programmes to the wider populace. Facebook is one of the top contenders for partnering with the government’s societal development and digital inclusion plans. The Election Commission of India had also partnered with Facebook in 2017, launching a nationwide voter registration campaign.5 Indian users, paying little regard to the privacy terms and condition of social media platforms, uninhibitedly share images, pictures and other content, and are extremely vulnerable to the tools, techniques and campaigns devised for influencing both commercial and political behaviour. Against this backdrop, the government’s concerns have been raised by Cambridge Analytica’s alleged mining of data from the profiles of 50 million US Facebook users without their consent.6 If such an incident were to occur in India, it would constitute a serious violation of the IT Act. Not just in India, Cambridge Analytica is also at loggerheads with the Electoral Commission in the UK over its alleged role in the BREXIT vote and in Europe for violating EU privacy laws in collusion with Facebook.

    Although Facebook has tendered an assurance of data security on its platform for the upcoming elections in India (2019) and Brazil (October 2018), the incident has caused severe damage to its reputation even as a development partner for governments in digital inclusion or other societal benefits plans. As the stakes in elections go up, political parties are unlikely to shy away from leveraging the technical expertise of data analytical firms like Cambridge Analytica fed with expansive data sets harvested from prominent social media platforms.

    Data is being extensively harvested and harnessed for commercial purposes, targeted marketing campaigns and to influence consumer choices. It is ethically and legally controversial when information derived without the consent of the users or through dubious means is leveraged to influence political choices. Flourishing in the void of effective legal and regulatory regimes, such incidents seriously undermine the trust of people in the democratic process. To an extent, users understanding the perils of sharing unwanted details or content on social media platforms and aware of their privacy settings is pertinent for containing such instances of abuse. For India, as a functioning democracy, the Cambridge Analytica episode highlights the need to expedite the process of developing a data protection framework and probably amend the IT Act in accordance with the changing realities of cyberspace. The earlier this is realised, the better it would be for the healthy functioning of our democratic systems and processes.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.