Social Persuaders. Transparency and democracy in digital campaigning

Fabio Chiusi
May 31, 2018 · 5 min read

In the last six months I coordinated a research project, called ‘Punto Zero’, aimed at understanding how to safeguard the democratic process and inject transparency in digital political campaigning in Italy.

The research question was simple: given digital political campaigning in Italy is mostly unregulated territory, should we regulate it instead? And how?

A participatory laboratory

We didn’t want to provide unilateral answers or solutions, though. We wanted to promote a rational, data and evidence-based discussion among all relevant stakeholders and players instead: digital platforms, political parties, PR agencies, labor unions, journalists and pundits.

We wanted an informal forum to foster informed debate and, ultimately, produce policy-oriented recommendations around the many issues that arise form an unregulated digital campaigning.

Some are unique to social media: we focussed on the use of microtargeted political advertising and political bots, the spread and contrast of online disinformation, the looming threat of foreign interference in the democratic process via digital means.

Others are not. Therefore, we tried to understand whether “analogue” existing regulations might actually work in the new, digitally disintermediated context. Is it sensible to try and implement rules such as the ban on polling in the last two weeks, or the “electoral silence” in the last 48 hours before the election? Does it make sense to somehow extend the idea, applicable to offline media, of giving each political party the same airing time — “par condicio” — to digital platforms?

We called it “participatory laboratory”, because we wanted everybody to actively contribute.

Our method

In order to provide actionable answers, we devised a methodology according to which Punto Zero researchers

  1. produced an initial report that provided an up-to-date review of relevant literature and facts from news reporting around digital campaigning
  2. presented the report to a panel of selected stakeholders: platforms (Google and Facebook), Authorities (Data Protection Authority, Communications Authority), political parties (Partito Democratico, Forza Italia, Movimento 5 Stelle, Liberi e Uguali), PR agencies (Proforma, Reti), labor unions (CGIL), journalists and pundits
  3. interviewed each stakeholder
  4. summarized the results of the interviews and updated the report with such findings
  5. presented them to stakeholders in two more plenary meetings in which actual solutions have been proposed and discussed
  6. devised policy-oriented recommendations detailing, for each issue, a) what to do, b) what not to do and c) problems that have yet to be solved.

Being at the full service of an informed discussion among stakeholders, nowhere did the Punto Zero team voice its opinions.

We instead tried to impartially reflect what emerged from a non-exhaustive and yet detailed review of the relevant literature (in the initial report), and the consensus and dissent emerged among stakeholders (in the final recommendations).

Results: what to do about digital campaigning

The full report is in Italian, but here I provide a summary of the main findings included in the final recommendations.

  • Microtargeted political advertising. The entire panel agrees there needs to be greater transparency in social media advertising. Users should know who’s paying for a message, which are its target audiences, how much the campaign costs and, through a searchable archive, which messages comprise the advertising campaign as a whole. Some stakeholders push for self-regulatory instruments. The majority, however, is in favor of regulation by law. Requirements should be met by both digital platforms and political entities. Questions arose as to a) how to properly discern political and commercial advertising, if it is needed at all, b) how to uniformly apply such regulations on all digital platforms, instant messaging included; c) how to avoid loopholes, for example by resorting to shell companies or fictitious identities when buying political ads.
  • Disinformation. The panel agrees there is no need for an anti-“fake news” law: the government should not be regulating truth on social media, in order to avoid repercussions on free speech, satire and journalism. Also, falsehood is not a exclusive or natural property of social media, as it mainly concerns traditional, mainstream media — according to stakeholders.
  • Foreign interference. Absent any solid evidence of digitally-mediated foreign interference in the democratic process, the panel agrees there is no need for specific intervention on this topic. At the same time, it recognizes the need of remaining vigilant, as the problem could hypothetically pose far more threatening challenges in the future.
  • Ideological “bubbles”. No specific intervention is required, according to the panel, to counter “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles”, and therefore incentivize a broader confrontation among differing ideological views on social media and reducing political polarization. Social media actually augment, not reduce, access to information. More research is however needed in order to better judge the effects of digital platforms on political discourse: stakeholders are broadly in favor of promoting further academic studying of the field. Digital platforms should better enable it by routinely sharing more data with journalists, academics and institutions.
  • Political bots. Automated profiles should be clearly distinguishable from human profiles on social media, the panel agrees. Political entities should be transparent about their usage of political bots to influence or shape online public discourse, and digital platforms should visually distinguish bots from humans on profile pages. Political botnets should not be banned or criminalized, however. Further research is required in this field too, to better identify and understand political bots and their actual contribution to the political discourse.
  • Polling ban, electoral silence and “par condicio”. Rather than extending existing regulation on such issues, the panel proposes to actually do the opposite, and rewrite the rules for both the online and offline worlds. Imposing an electoral silence on political actors on social media in the last two days of campaigning is seen as both hardly enforceable and useless. The same line of reasoning is broadly adopted concerning the ban on electoral polls in the last two weeks of the campaign. “Par condicio” should also be replaced with a notion of “equal access” to the civic features of social media. It is imperative, stresses the panel, to come up with solutions that take the current media ecosystem into consideration, rather than trying to force the digital political world to the constraints of the analogue one.

Lastly, we identified some issues that the panel considered of the greatest importance in digital campaigning and democracy at large, but that fell outside the scope of the project. Among them

  1. Whether and how to break digital monopolies
  2. How to shine a better light on the algorithms that digital platforms opaquely devise to shape our news consumption and political discourse in such a way that a) this increased transparency is actually useful for the average user in terms of fairness and increased awareness and b) it is not harmful to the platforms’ legitimate claims in terms of competitive advantage and intellectual property.
  3. How to obtain better comprehensive legislation on the issue of “conflict of interest” and media pluralism
  4. How to enable actual data portability between digital platforms.

Here is the full report [ITA].

Comments: fabiochiusi@yahoo.it

The Punto Zero Project is jointly realized by the Nexa Center for Internet & Society of the Politecnico of Turin, the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato in Rome and the P&R Foundation.

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