Written by Gabriel Breitenstein, Kristina Homann, Jan Laenge, Katharina Steinberg & Sophie van Kol
How will Fake News on Social Media Shape Democratic Processes in the Future?
In his timely book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, Timothy Snyder offers lessons drawn from European history that instruct us in a time when our familiar political order seems imperilled. His tenth lesson is “Believe in truth.” It goes as follows:
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Snyder argues that “post-fact” is the shortcut to killing democracy as without truth there cannot be trust amongst citizens. A lack of trust undermines the rule of law without which we cannot have democracy. In short, “Post-truth is pre-fascism”.
Recent events in Europe and America have finally shattered our sense that history can have only one direction: towards liberal democracy. This “politics of inevitability”, a “self-induced intellectual coma” which constrained our ability to conceive radical alternative futures, has been cast aside. Post-cold war certainties have been replaced by a sense of great uncertainty. Uncertainty about the future direction of our political system and what it implies for our personal life. In the meantime, technological progress has radically changed the way how we interact with each other. Social media has gained an increasingly dominant role in media consumption and opinion formation.
Considering these developments, the issue of social media’s and fake news’s impact on democratic processes has never been more important than today. This essay aims to add to the ongoing debate by developing possible future scenarios that not only take into account the role of technological progress but also society’s reaction to technology induced changes. Specifically, the essay addresses the question of how opinion formation and public debates are influenced through the increasingly dominant role of social media in the media consumption of the average citizen.
The essay examines recent case studies (The U.S. and France), historical and recent media consumption patterns, technology that facilitates the creation and distribution of fake news and underlying psychological processes. It presents four scenarios of the future role of social media in political processes and concludes with highlighting one of many important issues that warrant open debate in our society.
Recent Events — Elections in the U.S. and France
The digitalization trend, mostly fueled by the dissipation of the internet, has also enabled a great consumption of social media, with Facebook leading the pack by a wide margin but followed by Twitter, YouTube and many others. With its incredible reach of over 1.9 billion active users worldwide, and especially due to the convenience of the format, in which it presents its content, a large portion of today’s electorate spends an ever-increasing chunk of their time on Facebook. The tech giant, in turn, has gathered an extensive amount of detailed user data which can be used to identify and segment potential customers or peer groups based on age, gender, geographic location, interests, friend groups and many more metrics. It becomes evident that access to this kind of meta data opens up many opportunities which go beyond mere advertising. Many politically motivated groups have found themselves with a platform with incredible reach to spread their content in masse, as well as the tools to correctly identify and target the content of their message to a specific demographic. Since users have the possibility to expose their private network to this content via sharing, liking, tagging or commenting on Facebook, this information can be spread very quickly and can sometimes be perceived as word-of-mouth when friends share with other friends the content they care about. Unlike serious news outlets, however, information posted on Facebook does not require to be fact-checked, accurate or correct in any form.
Considering the facts above, it becomes almost blatantly obvious that social media would become a major part in the communication strategy of any politician, as it enables them to connect with their voters in an efficient and direct way with a high degree of exposure. Voters, in turn, have embraced this trend and actively seek out their politicians on social media. In the 2016 United States elections, for example, the largest influencers on Twitter of the campaign were the candidates themselves, with Donald Trump leading in social media impact, followed by Hillary Clinton and the remaining candidates from both sides. The first traditional news outlet in terms of influence merely ranked 12th place. The following figure shows the distribution of influence over the 2016 U.S. election.
President Donald Trump even admits that social media played a crucial role in his electoral win over Hillary Clinton, giving him a medium to communicate with his voters as well as defend himself against claims or allegations coming from the traditional news outlets. Researchers at Stanford, on the other hand, have exposed the issue of fake news in the context of the election and have come up with fascinating results. Firstly, the researchers found that 62% of U.S. adults get their news on social media. Secondly, many readers of fake news believe in the content they are reading and fake news stories get shared more often on social media. Thirdly, people are more likely to believe in news favoring their choice of candidate, especially if they have ideologically segregated social networks, i.e. they are not regularly exposed to opposing views different from their own. Lastly, the vast majority of fake news favored Donald Trump, with 115 articles identified as fake news which got shared over 30 million times on Facebook, versus 41 articles in favor of Hillary Clinton which got shared only 7.6 million times. With results like these, The Economist magazine even suggests utilizing interest and enthusiasm on social media as part of the electoral forecasting process, arguing that most polls were accurate but Mr. Trump beat the polls exactly in the states where his social media presence was strongest. Many data analytics companies like Cambridge Analytica are investing large resources into developing profiling and targeting services for their clients to tailor their political discourse to the wishes of the mass. Fake news stories may then easily be used to persuade undecided voters to choose a side based on entirely erroneous information, thus showing the vast impact this can have on the democratic process as such. Currently, Facebook has started fact-checking fake news across its platform, but recent reports show that this proves to be difficult and the battle against misinformation is far from over.
The phenomenon of fake news and social media used in elections has not been confined to America only. The current elections in France show a similar picture as in America, with polarizing candidate Marine Le Pen competing with Emmanuel Macron, a centralist, pro-EU candidate. Similar to the U.S. elections, fake news on French social media have also been on the rise. Oxford researchers found that up to one quarter of political links shared on French Twitter were fake news aimed at misinforming and manipulating the French electorate. The dissipation of these fake news is so vast that Macron already had to fight baseless accusations raised by fake news during a televised debate in France.
The Evolution of the Media
So how did we even reach this point of heated debates about the impact of social media consumption and fake news on democratic processes, as demonstrated in the U.S, France and elsewhere around the world? To better understand this, let’s take some steps back to assess the change in the media landscape and its usage throughout the years. Within the last 500 years, four different time periods stand out as “media revolutions” due to radical and disruptive transformations in the media landscape.
The first and probably most famous one came about in the middle of the 1400s and is marked by the introduction of the printing press, first turning Europe and then the world upside-down. By 1517, there were printing centres in over 200 of the major European cities. At the same time, the reformation was on the move, calling for a purified church and the belief that the holy Bible and not tradition should be the sole source of spiritual authority. Martin Luther and other reformers have been the first to cleverly use the power of the printing press to give their convictions a broad audience.
Only individuals or groups with the required financial means and influential level had the possibility to express their opinion and convictions publicly in the printed media and the communication was only one-way, transferring one message to a group.
In the 1830s and 1840s Samuel Morse and other inventors developed the first telegraph, which revolutionized long-distance and two-way communication media. This innovation disrupted the media landscape for the second time. Not only was it now possible to provide messages to an audience, as with the printing press, but the telegraph also enabled users to have a conversation about them. Furthermore, these messages had a way larger distribution radius and could spread much faster.
The third major transformation started with the development of possibilities to record media content including photos, sounds, or other contents such as movies. The first tests in capturing sound waves on a recording medium began during the Industrial Revolution around the 1800s and resulted in the patenting of the pioneering phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, just to name one example. Thus, people were now able to conserve media content for the first time and did not need to consume it instantly. This disruption further enhanced the sharing of messages with groups, but did not contribute to the improvement of the conversation.
Finally, the fourth transformation of the media landscape emerged due to the invention of the radio and television. Probably, the most prominent example of the impact of media on opinion formation and public debate at that time was the use of the radio during National socialism, which empowered the Nazis by giving a global voice to Hitler. The radio was already in its maturity and nearly every household owned one. As such, it was the medium with the largest impact and provided the most efficient way of transmitting a message to the masses, directly infiltrating their homes. The future Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, summarized this in his notes after the appointment of Hitler as the chancellor of Germany:
“Now it will be easy to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the state. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda”
From 1933 onwards, the Nazis actively tried to further increase the number of radio listeners by the introduction of an affordable radio receiver, the so called Volksempfänger (people’s receiver).
The Nazis used the radio to broadcast their ideals - patriotism, national pride and their worship for Adolf Hitler, but also to encourage denunciations of Jews leading to their deportation and trigger open expressions of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Hitler’s speeches were broadcasted to various countries to spread the Nazi ideology throughout the world. Through new technical devices such as the radio and widely dispersed loudspeakers it was possible to reach more than 80 million people and deny them their own opinion and independent thoughts. The effect the Nazi’s efficient use of the mass media had on the opinion formation and public debate of the society is well known.
Having revisited the past, what is the trend today and in the future? With the emergence of the Internet, a new mass medium has evolved, connecting billions of people worldwide. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have around 2.8 billion active users and the annual growth rate continues apace. As outlined by Clay Shirky in his impressive TED-talk, social media could make a print on history due to its ability to allow a much wider and interactive spectrum of communication and information exchange between peers around the world on an instant basis. In particular, when it comes to democratic processes and political debates, people now have the possibility to publicly share their opinion and conviction, inform themselves, react to other people’s statements but also to spread false information to mislead others, so called “fake news”. Thus, the emergence of social media combines the two ways of transformation for the first time in history, namely facilitating the communication of a message to a peer group and simultaneously enhancing the conversation between peers. Peers can react instantly to posts or tweets, spread the message even further through re-posts etc. leading to continuous live debates. Thus, media is transitioning from a sole information source, to an interaction source, especially since no longer only professionals, such as journalists or reporters, share their investigated results and well-argued opinion, but also “amateurs” do so. This change makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between trustworthy and invalidated information requiring additional coordination and double-checking efforts. As found by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, especially young adults trust social media as an information source. Of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed, 28% cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24% for TV. Furthermore, the Institute’s research suggests that 51% of people with online access use social media as a news source, while around one out of ten (12%) says it is their main source. Facebook was named as the most important network for news by most of the participants.
The Technology Behind Fake News
Having shed light on the emergence of social media and its influence on public debates and democratic processes, it becomes crucial to understand how social media may be infiltrated with fake news. Users of Social Media are often categorized into three distinct segments, each of which provides an opportunity for fake news to be spread. These are human users, bots and cyborgs.
Social Media platforms can be infiltrated with fake news by human users in three major ways. First, bloggers with the power to influence a large amount of users may be paid to push certain content and write respective comments in discussions. When several social media influencers are employed, the accumulated effect may be of a great impact. The second option regards Click Farms, which are organizations that employ cheap labor, often in underdeveloped countries with the objective to boost likes on the content desired by the customer. In exchange for a fee, these entities set up fake accounts through which they create thousands of likes, that ultimately influence trending topics and mislead users on social media platforms. A significant advantage for manipulators arises from the fact that these organizations hire real people, which allows them to bypass most security measures employed by social media platforms. A third way in which humans may manipulate users on social media entails the set-up of fake news sites, which purposely depict a high resemblance with existing, legitimate news agencies. These sites are usually set up for two main purposes: To publish counterfeited news articles with a pecuniary motivation, oftentimes on political issues or to spread ideological content with the purpose of supporting a specific party.
A second and more influential type of user on social media platforms are software robots, referred to as bots. These are automated processes, such as algorithms, that provide information and engage in activities, usually performed by human users. As such, bots are primarily utilized to interact with Instant Messaging, Internet Relay Chat or websites and interfaces in an automated manner. Whereas legitimate bots can often provide significant benefits to users, great damage may be done by malicious bots, which are able to obtain login information of users and take over human tasks using the respective APIs (application programming interface).
Fake news on Social Media Platforms are spread by a specific subset of such malicious bots, denominated as Social Media Bots. These are automated algorithms, that control social media accounts and appear to users like a real person, e.g. by acting as authentic followers and friends. They can produce content and interact with other users, which ultimately enables them to mimic or even alter human behavior. In this way, they distinguish themselves from other types of malicious bots for example declared or spam bots.
Social Media Bots may be created in 4 ways. First, a new account may be set up, either automatically or manually depending on the platform. From the beginning, the account is intended to be controlled by a bot, that will automatically interact with others on Social Media. Another possibility entails the take-over of existing user accounts. In this scenario, the bot attaches itself to an account, operated by a human user and without the person’s consent obtains complete or a part of its control. The third manner regards the invasion of dormant accounts, i.e. those accounts that are still existent but no longer in use, by hacking password information. Ultimately, bots may appear as followers to accounts. In this scenario, however, the purchaser of the bot’s services does not obtain control over the computer.
Once a Social Media bot has been set up, it may be deployed in three distinct manners. If created with a positive intention, bots have the ability to mobilize networks of supporters for a good cause. A second functionality entails the sole following of other accounts. By scanning the network for influencers, following them and attracting their attention through inquiries, they are able to establish a significant follower base. Bots may strategically use this social network by following users that support specific topics and by subsequently retweeting and pushing their publications. This in turn may significantly influence the content presented to other users on social media. A third and probably most disruptive ability of Social Media bots is the dissemination of content created by the bot itself. They are capable of publishing collected content at set times, imitating human behavior in content production in terms of time and publishing intervals. Further, Social media bots may gather information online through a keyword search to generate content on a specific topic. They apply language algorithms to spread this content and to engage in discussions with other users in an automated manner. In this way, Social Media bots attempt to attract attention and visibility and are able to significantly influence users by spreading content of ideological and promotional nature as well as to open or distort discussions among users.
Social Media Bots’ ability to deceive, exploit and influence other users on Social Media by for example spreading rumors, spam, misinformation or noise effects that they are often utilized in malicious ways. As such, they release fake news, penetrate political discourse and may even influence the stock market. Especially, in political debates, another powerful function of social media bots, is their ability to silence other users, representing specific ideologies. By using social media bots, organizations have the power to silence their counterparty on social media by intentionally spreading fake news in high frequencies so that any other legitimate content is buried under the large amount of messages.
The influence of bots on social media is fortified when they are deployed collectively in a so-called botnet. They refer to a situation in which attackers control a collection of bots in order to flood social media with a specific content. Botnets are extremely powerful and difficult to combat for two reasons. First, they function in a very efficient and effective manner since they operate as a distributed system. As such, each computer performs only a subset of the overall task, which greatly lowers the resources necessary to launch an attack. A second characteristic is the geographic dispersion of botnets, which allows them to change the sources of fake news on a frequent basis. This implies, that it is very difficult to identify the sources of spam and does not allow for preventing it through IP-based blacklisting.
The third type of user, called cyborg, is defined as the physical merger between a human and a machine. Regarding the spread of fake news, cyborgs are either bot-assisted humans or human-assisted bots. An example of a cyborg is a human being who registers an account for which he sets automated programs to post, for instance tweets, during his absence. Once in awhile, the human participates to interact and tweet with friends. Cyborgs are different from bots, as bots use automation, whereas cyborgs intertwine characteristics of both manual and automated behavior.
Cyborgs offer unique opportunities for fake news spreaders, as it blends automated activity with human input. When the automated accounts are publicly identified, the human part of the cyborg will take over and protest that the account has been used manually all along.
The Psychological Processes behind the Susceptibility to Fake News
The susceptibility of humans to fake news can be explained by certain cognitive biases, which may be described as multiple psychological concepts.
The first concept is ‘motivated reasoning’, which is the idea that humans are motivated to believe whatever confirms their opinions. If for instance, one is motivated to believe negative news about Macron, one is more likely to trust fake tweets that entail scandalous negative stories that one wants to believe. Motivated reasoning can lead to a false social consensus over time. Secondly, ‘naïve realism’ represents the human tendency to believe that one’s own perception of reality is the only accurate view, and that people who disagree are most likely uninformed, biased or irrational. Naïve realism leads humans to discredit their opponents instead of simply disagreeing. The third concept, ‘reality by social consensus’, explains that beliefs with high societal consensus are treated like facts, whereas beliefs with relatively low consensus are more susceptible to persuasion and attitude change. The latter is most likely a product of the social consensus of the specific community one lives in.
Overall, the combined effect of the three psychological concepts, prevents people from ending at objective conclusions. The directional motivations and accuracy affect how humans search for, evaluate and incorporate information into their beliefs. Humans often merely search for confirmation of positions they already hold.
Even though cognitive biases apply to human beings in general, it is found that certain people are more susceptible to fake news than others. A study conducted by Wagner et al. (2012) intended to identify susceptible users of social media and to be able to predict users’ levels of susceptibility. Using data from ‘The Social Bot Challenge’, aimed to influence user behaviour on Twitter, the research concluded that susceptible users tend to be more open and social, communicating with many different users including those outside of their closed circle of friends, and use Twitter for conversational purposes. They use more social words and show more affection than non-susceptible users. Specifically, they use more adverbs, exclusive words, motion words, and negation words. They tend to use twitter to talk about their activities and to emotionally communicate.
Finally, this information should be taken with precaution, as a danger is associated with the availability of knowledge on susceptibility to fake news. This danger is that people with bad intentions can more effectively target their spread of fake news with this knowledge. Especially with the insights from the research conducted by Wagner et al. (2012), specific keywords can be searched for to find susceptible users and target them.
A change of perspective — PSYOPS
To further deepen the understanding of the human psychological processes behind the manipulation through social media, it is worthwhile to adopt the perspective of military thinking, given that both state and non-state actors have increased their use of social media to achieve their political or military objectives. Psychological operations (Psy Ops), commonly known as propaganda, can be defined as “planned psychological activities using methods of communications and other means directed to approved audiences in order to influence perceptions, attitudes and behaviour, affecting the achievement of political and military objectives”.
Crucial to this activity is that it acts upon people’s emotions. In order to understand the emotions of large group of people, it is important to gather as much data on them as possible. For example, Cambridge Analytica, an organization that is considered to have had a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the recent Brexit vote and US election, has up to 5’000 data points on over 230m American voters. This data in combination with sophisticated psychological models enables the organization to understand people’s emotions and target them precisely with content intended to influence their behaviour. Importantly, a relative low amount of social media data is needed to make accurate predictions of someone’s personality. Michal Kosinski, a leading scientist in the field, found that “with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself”. He argues that “computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves”.
Obviously, the opportunities that arise from such a capability are not limited to the commercial sector but have been used in political campaign and are likely to become a decisive factor in determining the success of political parties and campaigns in the future. Given that using such a capability requires organization and money, the political power of organized actors, whether domestic or foreign, are likely to increase in the future.
How will Social Media’s Potential Influence on Political Processes Shape our Future? — Four Scenarios
But where might those further developments of the technologies and the changes in the way human individuals use social media during political debates and democratic processes take us? Of course, we are not able to foresee the future, but what we can do is to develop potential future scenarios based on assumptions. The first key driving factor we are taking into account is the embeddedness of those processes in social media platforms ranging from complete integration to separation. The second key driving factor is focusing on the degree of regulation, thus if legislative bodies and acts exist to control the shared contents and interactions on social media platforms or if social media is treated as a private good. In the following the impacts of those 2 key driving factors will be elaborated on in detail resulting in the development of four scenarios.
Scenario 1: Social Consensus Equals Nonsense (Deregulation & Integration)
This world is made up of fabricated stories that spread like fire. Social media is the only medium of communication and information distribution and the whole political process including opinion formation and the election process itself is performed on the social media platform. Citizens do not have any other option than getting involved due to the embeddedness of all societal activities in social media platforms. Thus they do not necessarily trust in this source but are dependent on the information monopoly. The rapid development in the field of AI, including tools that can do real-time reenactment or voice manipulation, allows that the manipulated information is presented in such a convincing way that viewers cannot trust the validity of information, but there is no way to find certified information sources outside of the social media platform. Companies have invested heavily in developing new technologies to be able to easily and constantly check social media accounts and to adapt their marketing strategy to the individual target customer. Citizens are totally transparent and need to share their information publicly on one social media platform. Private tech companies sell their data to the one who pays the most and a huge data marketplace dominated by the large tech companies is developed. Portable devices virtually project the content through contact lenses and glasses. In this way, people are up-to-date and targeted at any time of the day, while they can walk around with free hands. However, governments and tech companies cannot catch up with the spread of malicious content or software, thus the whole opinion formation process is infected by fake news and untrue contents, negatively influencing the election results. Verification of content has become a 1 against 1.000.000 game, as bots can now even be developed by amateurs. In this scenario, the people get disaffected, cynical and the voter turnout decreases dramatically, since people do not want to base their vote on their dependence on potential fake news.
Scenario 2: The Extinction of Social Media (Regulation & Separation)
The newspaper and other offline information sources are back. People have stopped trusting only in online sources, especially social media, as they have lived the consequences of fake news. The simultaneous reign of Trump, Erdogan and Putin (also known as the ‘TEP era’) have proved the amount of damage that can be done with the spread of fake news. The third world war, which resulted from the TEP era, has led people to abandon their computers more and more, in order not to be traced by the enemy. After the war, computers were reintroduced but social media have forfeit their power as people have lost their trust. Institutions started to promote, protect, and support the old and trustworthy newspapers but also strongly improved their protective and controlling initiatives for social media platforms. The main means of commutating has become a phone call, as people started to value hearing someone’s voice after losing so many friends during the war. Due to the development of Blockchain technology and the widespread applications of it, the new governmental institutions have been able to prevent the spread of malicious content. The world is a trusted place where the trustworthiness can be controlled thanks to modified Blockchain verifications. The source and developments of all informative content, for instance videos, messages, posts and other shared materials are stored based on the blockchain technology and thus can be traced back. Subsequently modified contents are highlighted on the social media platform including the contact details about the user, who has changed the information, which allows not only legal enforcement but also reaction from the online society. People keep track of a variety of daily news sources and their social networks through portable devices that project their social media feeds on their contact lenses and glasses. They use diverse online sources to validate the informations before believing them and the political debate in social networks is of high quality and based on confirmed facts. The technologies for the creation of fake news and also the human intentions to spread those news are obsolete. Social media is now a place for intellect and qualitative opinion formation and political debates carefully governed by legal institutions and society.
Scenario 3: Back to the basics (Deregulation & Separation)
In this deregulated digital world, online sources are perceived to be unreliable. To the regret of many, people have lived the consequences of cyber hacking, during what is called the ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’ which took place in 2025. Private information of everyone with a social media account was exposed by intentionally bad hackers. Governments have tried to restore people’s privacy, but have been unsuccessful in their combat. Hacking has become an easy hobby for the younger generations who grew up in times of digitalization and who have never experienced life without it. Therefore, fighting against the spread of fake news and the security of privacy has become a numbers game. Partly as a result of ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’, people have decided to abandon social media. The second cause of this radical decision is that people have started to dislike the monotonous algorithms behind social media feeds, which exclude news articles that are calculated not to be of interest from appearing on people’s newsfeeds. People have become frustrated by the addiction to share one’s daily lives on social media and have realized that there was nothing left to talk about when meeting in person. Therefore, they have decided to take back control over the information that reach their attention. Especially after ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’, people now like to keep their stories private and prefer to meet for a coffee to be able to talk in person. Consequently, the strength of ‘online social bubbles’ has decreased, and people are more open to contradicting perspectives of articles, videos and podcasts that are out of one’s existing interests. This results in more nuanced and profound political debates, and less attraction to showmanship. Political leaders now need to come up with higher quality content in speeches to reach the attention of the broadly informed voter. Voter turnouts have decreased, as not everyone who leaves social media is motivated or interested enough to inform him- or herself about politics. Society is separating into clusters based on education level, who spend similar time on researching the news. Social media does not exist anymore, except for its communicational parts such as whatsapp and messenger, which are mostly used to set meetings.
Scenario 4: Social is Safe (Regulation & Integration)
The world of social media is a better and more reliable place, as governments and institutions have cooperated with the most influential programmers in silicon valley to create a reliable system. Due to the development of Blockchain technology and the widespread applications of it, the new governmental institutions have been able to prevent the spread of malicious content. The trustworthiness is derived from modified Blockchain verifications. The source and developments of all informative content, for instance videos, messages, posts and other shared materials are stored based on the blockchain technology and thus can be traced back. Moreover, now that tech companies have been able to establish a reliable system where fake news is obsolete, governments have taken the cooperation with tech companies to a next level by integrating democratic processes into the social media platforms. Voting is now done (anonymously) through social media, and everyone with a social media account is forced to cast their vote in order to be able to access their accounts again. This way of increasing the voter turnout is called ‘the ultimate democracy’, which has been a hot topic in various debates over the years that passed. Additionally, social media are now centralized platforms from which people can control and arrange their lives. From self-driving car pick-ups, to agenda management, to grocery delivery of the chosen recipe for dinner, everything is managed through social media. Nowadays, social media integrated a new tool in their platforms, which is called the ‘Personal Consultant’. Based on the tremendous amount of data that social media possess for every individual, a tool is created which is able to advise every individual on daily trivial and nontrivial decisions. These advices on decisions range from the recommended political party to vote for, to the accurate outfit to wear to an important meeting or the recipes to cook after workouts to maximize muscle development. Technology development is highly regulated and controlled by the government, as new laws are in place, which require tech companies to inform governments on their newest innovations, and share data when necessary. The main objective for the governments and influential tech companies is to reach a transparency level that has never been seen before, to take away societies incentives to go into wrong directions
The four scenario presented before are by intention designed to be extreme cases of how the future might look like. The goal of this analysis is to spark a reflection process about possible implications of each scenario rather than providing “realistic” scenarios that are biased towards the familiar of our current environment. While it is improbable that we will find ourselves in an exact replication of any of those scenarios, it is by no means impossible. The threat of ending up in a dystopia should motivate us to take this issue seriously and implementing measures that prevent it from happening.
In order to ensure a transparent political process that is based on the rule of law and on trust between citizens, we need to debate which role social media platforms like Facebook should be allowed to have in how citizens form their political opinions. Specifically, we should address the question: “Who can be allowed to have access to Facebook data that enables psychometric analysis of individuals and delivering of micro targeted political messages?” If we decide to keep this aspect unregulated, we essentially let stakeholders with the necessary organization and money gain an outsized influence in shaping the public opinion in ways that were beyond the wildest dreams of propagandist in the 20th century. The alternatives of restricted or no access are certainly difficult to implement properly given the strong vested interest in monetizing this data and political actors’ desire to exercise more control on public opinion. However, there is no excuse for not trying it.
Importantly, enabling a fair political process requires more than regulatory action and an increased sensibility in dealing with “fake news”. In the end, it is vital that everyone reconsiders the way with which we give our private data away for free in exchange for a receiving free service. Every time you get something for free, keep the following in mind: “If you don’t have to pay for receiving a product or a service, almost always you are the product.” Although the current political environment with its “alternative facts” and showmanship offers a great spectacle, we should be under no illusion that we live in a truly historical moment. The future trajectory of our political systems is in flux and failing to respond accordingly in time might well have dire consequences for all of us in the years to come.