21st century telescreens: The Good, Bad and the Ugly
For better or worse, social media floods our lives. It can be used to spread innovative ideas, to predict epidemics, but it also serves as a powerful tool for organisations and political leaders to target and diffuse specific opinions.
Earlier this year, during the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president was greeted by supporters chanting “Facebook!” and “WhatsApp!”.
The reason for this? Well, Mr Bolsonaro’s secret election weapon was his WhatsApp account.
According to WhatsApp, over 120 million Brazilians use its service. However, in Brazil the tool is used less as a private messaging app and more as a means to share news and misinformation.
According to Brazilian media, during the campaign, Bolsonaro’s followers shared videos and memes disseminating deceiving, often racist and gender discriminatory content about his political rivals and minority groups to millions of citizens. Conspiracy theories too were circulated among Brazilians, eventually resulting in Mr Bolsonaro’s presidential win.
This was just another in a long line of examples demonstrating how social media has changed the way political campaigns are run and how individuals around the world interact with their elected officials.
And although social media has made elected officials more accountable and accessible to voters, the ability to publish profile-raising content and disseminate it to millions in a matter of seconds has put citizens at the mercy of subliminal advertising.
Based on a study into psychological targeting, conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Michal Kosinski, one ‘like’ on Facebook can reveal our skin colour, political affiliation and sexual orientation. This means that our social media activities can indicate our unique psychological characteristics, which can then be used by governments or marketers to tailor their communication.
The power of social media to mobilise a crowd first became evident during Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, says Lubna Alam, associate professor of information systems at the Deakin Business School.
“Since then, politicians have jumped on this bandwagon,” says Ms Alam.
She explains that among the reasons behind the political use of social media is the medium’s direct link to the people, which allows politicians to receive early feedback on their policies and intentions, enabling them to tweak their campaign in ‘real time’.
“It’s the immediacy and the reach of the platform, and its viral nature. All these things work really well for the politicians,” explains Ms Alam.
According to the Digital 2019 Report, produced jointly by social media management platform Hootsuite and creative agency We Are Social, 18 million Australians or around 72 per cent of the population as a whole are now actively using social media — a sizeable jump from the 66 per cent recorded just a year earlier.
Roger Christie, the managing director of Propel Group Australia, explains that today, more than ever, politicians have access to the type of information that allows them to personalise their messages.
“The motivation behind what politicians are doing hasn’t changed, they would do the same thing at rallies and in print ads. Their aim is to try and tap into things that they believe are most likely to lead a consumer to start believing the views they want them to believe,” Mr Christie says.
“The only thing that has changed is the ability of political parties to access information that allows them to personalise and shape those messages to people in a way that will likely get the best response.”
This means that the sophistication with which politicians can try to shape or influence our opinions is much greater than ever before.
This is best illustrated by US President Donald Trump, whose use of social media to speak directly to the people bypasses traditional broadcasting channels.
But besides offering an arena for personalised psychographic persuasion, social media reaches a wider audience than traditional demographic advertising, clarifies Dr William Yeoh, director at the IBM Centre of Excellence in Business Analytics at Deakin University.
“Nowadays many people spend more time on social media than traditional media e.g. newspaper, billboard, TV and radio,” says Dr Yeoh.
“It bridges the communication gap and creates fan groups.”
An added plus is that, compared with the cost of advertising on television, radio or in print media, digital advertising is very affordable. This makes social media not only a powerful, but also a cost-effective way for politicians to ‘directly’ engage with the public.
But social media has a dark side.
The dissemination of ‘fake news’, particularly witnessed during Mr Bolsonaro’s political campaign, portrayed how easy it is to spread offensive, fabricated and discriminatory remarks via social networks and use them to twist the public perception of ‘truth’.
Dr Yeoh admits that social media can be dangerous.
An example of the sinister side of social media, he says, was the recent bombings disaster in Sri Lanka, during which the government shut off its residents’ access to online networks and messaging systems, including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber. The official government concern was that “false news reports were spreading through social media”.
“One of the problems is that the information you see on these platforms is not verified by any authoritative source. So, obviously, ‘fake news’ is one of the biggest concerns,” Ms Alam says.
The Cambridge Analytica data scandal was another poignant example of how social media can be used to manipulate people into believing in agenda-driven propaganda.
In early 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes, specifically to target British voters during the Brexit referendum.
It has been described as a watershed moment in the public understanding of personal data and triggered calls for tighter regulation of tech companies’ use of data.
But, Mr Christie says that when talking about the dangers of social media, we need to separate the platforms from the people who use them.
“Someone who has a tool that is incredibly powerful and if that person has good intentions, that tool can be used for good things. If someone has poor or bad intentions, then obviously the reverse will happen,” he warns.
“What social media has done is it has provided that greater level of sophistication and unfortunately if that falls into the hands of someone who will abuse or manipulate that power, that’s where it becomes a problem.”
This intensifies our need to critically analyse and filter information before we ingest it.
“The problems are there, so it is important when we see things on social media, we need to have some sort of mechanism to verify the information and before forming a view, we need to look at more media and news forms, not just the social side,” advises Ms Alam.
Becoming a discerning consumer
In order to restrict the negative aspects of social media, the European Commission has implemented data protection reform across the European Union with the aim to make Europe ‘fit for the digital age’.
The General Data Protection Regulation came into effect on 25 May, returning to people control of a valuable asset of the modern age: their personal data.
“That’s a positive move,” says Ms Alam.
“The platforms now have the obligation to tell their users how their data is being stored, who else will have access to their data and how it will be shared for advertising purposes.”
Ms Alam explains that essentially, it all comes down to regulation.
“If we can regulate these platforms better and if we can impede on these platforms to do better for the community, and ensure that profit-maximisation is not the forefront of their agenda, we can achieve better conditions.”
However, consumers also have to become more conscious of the type of information they are making available for public consumption.
“Users need to be aware of what can and what can’t be accessed by a third party. If I fall into a custom audience and that audience has parameters, it lives in a specific area and has a certain level of education, advertisers can use that to target me with information,” Mr Christie explained.
While social media will never disappear, he predicts that as technological capabilities expand, our awareness of social networks will evolve.
“If you look at cyber security as an example, it is not as if questions surrounding cyber security are ever entirely answered, it is not as if these loopholes are ever filled, it’s just that there is an ongoing struggle or an ongoing battle to try and keep up,” Mr Christie explains.
During the most recent Australia federal election, we were blasted by campaign ads on social media. We watched Prime Minister Scott Morrison cook up a curry for Mother’s Day, and had front row seats as Bill Shorten read a book to primary school children.
However, Ms Alam points out that Australian politicians do not use social media to the same extent as their US comrades.
She suggests that perhaps this is because local politicians receive a more favourable portrayal in traditional media, than say Mr Trump in the US.
“Australian media is not as one sided. Politicians here don’t see social media as the only way to communicate, but in saying that, I think some parties use social media better than others,” Ms Alam admits.
But social media did help the director of Griffith University’s Big Data and Smart Analytics lab correctly predict Scott Morrison’s win.
While all the polls were tilting towards a Labor win, Professor Bela Stantic knew otherwise.
In the five days before election night, he analysed 2 million social media comments, from more than half a million unique accounts, and predicted that Scott Morrison would remain PM.
“I rely on many algorithms that I developed at Griffith University, related to the sentiment, target, the text in short messages, and other algorithms such as clustering, to derive at my predictions,” Professor Stantic explained.
Asked whether polling agencies should turn to social media for future predictions, Professor Stantic says ‘yes’.
“I think companies need to rely on big data analytics, along with the traditional methods, but in the long term, particularly as the number of landlines are reduced, traditional methods will die,” he cautions.
While social media allows us to express our opinions in written or visual form, and creates a feeling of connectivity in an increasingly disconnected world, data experts urge us to approach it with anxious apprehension.
Social media collects our every gesture, search and the comments we make online, and serves as an omniscient presence in our lives, much like Orwell’s 1984 telescreens that could “lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought”.
“Knowledge is power,” Mr Christie reminds.
He reiterates that by understanding the online media environment, people will be more equipped to respond to any forms of manipulation and to prevent it.
“My key message is, don’t make decision on something you don’t understand. The best way to offset risk is to understand how an environment works, what that means for you and your stakeholders,” Mr Christie concludes.