Till Hartig, is a law and politics student from the European University Frankfurt Oder, Germany. He focuses on Human rights law and international law. Currently, he is doing his exchange semester at the TSU in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he studies media security and informational warfare (program "media psychology and communications").
When I take a look at my social media accounts, it occurs that political parties use ads on social media to promote their program. In times before elections, this is a normal procedure to fight for support. As posters in public or door to door promotion, social media is a useful tool for political parties or movements. Yet, the usage can be problematic due to the lack of transparency of the platforms. To take a closer look at political campaigning, in this academic blog I will focus on the 2021 parliament elections in Germany to find out about potential dangers of social media campaigning for democracies.
While in Germany offline campaigning is highly regulated, this is not the case online. Balancing is key for a fair political campaigning. Therefore, TV ads have to follow the relative proportion of the current straight of the parties in the parliament. Yet, on Facebook, the principle of balance is not followed. Because the platform relies on ads to gain profit, micro-targeting can be a tool to influence users. This tool is also used by political parties in Germany. The problem with these ads is, that they are highly individualised. This can lead to the absurd circumstance that the liberal party FDP used ads which promote a radical change in climate politics for the one target group, while presenting themselves as a party which is against state restrictions when it comes to climate politics to another target group (Meyer, Niedermeier and Zajonz, 2021).
Already, the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how harmful data abuse can be. In the 2010s, the British consulting company “Cambridge Analytica” collected data of more than 87 million Facebook users, even though the users did not give their consent. Later, the company sold the data to give analytical assistance for the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaign in 2016. Hence, the unexpected win of Donald Trump in the elections can not be simply explained by the micro-targeting manipulation on Facebook and other platforms, that scandal showed the potential of manipulation through social media. Yet, influencing and manipulating citizens is not a new phenomenon. It is inherent in democracy combined with mass media.
But, online manipulation has new dangers: First, there are no geographical barriers online. So theoretically everyone with a connection to the internet can be reached. This makes manipulation more powerful in quantitive. Also, the anonymity makes it harder for the consumer to verify or falsify a source. Accounts that seem to belong to normal people, could be troll accounts that try to change the discourse by spreading emotional messages with different usernames or even get paid to change the discourse on special pages. Finally, automation adds makes it very efficient to reach a predisposed person for manipulation. Originally, this is used to sell products on social media. But with the growing influence of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the manipulation with political messages became attractive and profitable as well. The efficiency of online manipulation shows the qualitative component of the new way of mass media manipulation (Berghel, 2018).
As expected and shown before, the campaigning manipulation is not limited to the US. Unfortunately, European political stakeholders adopted the use of mass data collected by Facebook and other platforms. In the 2021 parliamentary elections in Germany, the right wing populist party AfD (alterative for Germany) was most successful with their social media campaign. Even though the party had a very little chance of winning the elections, the videos of their top candidate, Alice Weidel, had almost five million views during the campaigning period - more than any other politician in Germany in that time (Pfeifer, 2021).
Yet, this is not very surprising. The party is known for its emotional content. Often hating against minorities like migrants, they are able to gain attention online. Furthermore, the AfD as an extreme right party, is so far excluded to spread hate in traditional media. On social media platforms, there are no or little and ineffective gatekeepers, that could limit the use of extreme language and messages of party members and supporters. But such gatekeepers are essential for the survival of a democracy. The mostly unwritten rules of respect for the political enemy prevent democratic societies from extremism and totalism (Ziblatt and Levitzky, 2018). Institutionalised gatekeepers like political parties or media outlets have the power to prevent demagogues from coming to power. So far, western democracies were mostly successful with that strategy.
New technologies like social networks also bring new challenges to a system. Yet, there are little rules for social media platforms, how to deal with misinformation or manipulation. Often, social media firms can decide by their own rules how to deal with such phenomenons. This is problematic, because it is beneficial to such companies to collect a massive amount of data and to sell it to whatever person of interest. A first step to limit online manipulation can be transparency of the platforms. So far, this was not successful.
The Cambridge Analytica case did not bring any efficient transparency tools provided by the social media companies to find out how the data is collected on their platforms. Therefore, the state combined with supranational institutions like the European Union must force companies like Facebook to transparency and to limit data collections. This will not be easy, but important, if western democracies want to protect themselves from division due to manipulation.
Hence, there are also steps for individuals, to prevent online manipulation. Of course, the most easy one, in my opinion, is to avoid social media platforms - at least for political education. Often, social media is not used to get a complex view on a political topic. People tend to use social media to put themselves into a comfort zone, where only their already set opinions and world views are echoed (Leetaru, 2018). This makes social media very efficient in mobilising people for political issues. Unfortunately, also radicalisation can be created in these filter bubbles. Hence, it is not surprising that both the extreme left and the extreme right were most successful in campaigning online in Germany 2021.
A relatively easy way to avoid radicalisation and echoing online is to follow opponent political channels. Then a bias is less likely and current events can be seen from different angles. Also, it can be useful to follow already credible media outlets online. Typically, they have more professional editing and are therefore more credible. Still, in my opinion, all mass media can be used for manipulation.
Finally, social media is not bad per se and can be effective and useful to politicise citizens. But the current use of manipulation proved the danger for our democracy as well. Therefore, social media firms must be somehow regulated, so that the state can insure no unfair competition.
Berghel, Hal, 2018: Malice Domestic: The Cambrige Analytica Dystopia, http://www.berghel.net/col-edit/out-of-band/may-18/oob_5-18.pdf
Leetaru Kalev 2018: Without Transparency, Democracy Dies In The Darkness Of Social Media https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2018/01/25/without-transparency-democracy-dies-in-the-da rkness-of-social-media/?sh=9e6cc4e72214
Meyer R., Niedermeier N. and Zajonz M. 2021: Bundeswahlkampf: So werben die Parteien im Wahlkampf, https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/politik/wahlkampf-2021-socialmedia-bundestagswahl-100.html
Pfeifer, Hans 2021: AFD: Die Macht in den sozialen Medien, https://www.dw.com/de/afd-die-macht-in-den-sozialen-medien/a-58906678
Ziblatt D, Levitzky S, 2018: How democrcies die
From series of MCERC Academic Blogs on "Information Warfare and Security" created by Georgian and International students.