Social networks and election campaigns: for the moment, best kept apart
Google has updated its policies on the use of its advertising network for election campaigns, and will prevent customization based on political beliefs. However, the idea of banning the use of a simple political adscription label that defines Americans as “left-leaning”, “right-leaning” or “independent” while still allowing them to segment according to variables such as age, sex, location or, above all, the content of the pages they visit seems insufficient, casting doubts on whether this will solve the problem of misuse of social networks for political purposes.
The first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one, and in this case, our democracy — and therefore society, has a problem with social networks. For the time being, the measures taken by different social networks to prevent microsegmentation are extremely varied. Google’s cosmetic change contrasts with Facebook’s “anything goes”, which says that lies and manipulation are inherent to campaigning and that it’s not their job to prevent dirty tricks. Twitter has taken the radical decision to ban all political campaigns. Facebook’s refusal to make a call on what is true or false in US politics contrasts, however, with its willingness to tackle coordinated non-genuine activity in other countries, or in closing almost half a million WhatsApp accounts in Brazil during the last elections. Yesterday, the company announced they will be restricting microsegmentation to a certain degree. In other words, the only rule seems to be that there are no rules.
The task we face as a society is to establish that that it’s fine for political parties to use social networks to get their message over, as has been done traditionally through other media, but that disinformation, lies and fakery is not acceptable and will be punished through the courts. In the not-too distant future, practices that have become normal, such as creating armies of false accounts or spreading panic will be seen as madness, as undermining our democracy: when it comes to winning an election, anything doesn’t go.
While methods are being developed to stop these types of activities, the best thing would surely be to call time out and for the moment, exclude social networks, from all types of political campaigning, while developing specific algorithms to track microsegmentation and coordinated behavior. We have to understand that social networks are powerful and polarizing weapons that distort election campaigns and take a firm hand in how they are used.
There can be no half-measures or tolerance toward people and organizations trying to undermine our democratic processes, which must protected at all costs. If we’re going to allow our elections, on which our democracy rests, to be manipulated by powerful players, then we might as well throw the towel in now.