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Connect and Divide: Information War on Social Media

In 2024, an important election year in many countries around the world, it is inevitable that misinformation – particularly when spread via social media – will again influence the outcomes, or seek to. Because tech companies collect so much data on us, every minute of every day, we must be vigilant if we don’t want to become victims of micro-targeting, a tactic which exploits our personal vulnerabilities to achieve a desired result.

It sounds like an oxymoron – dividing by connecting. Yet this is how social media often works – when the information disseminated through social media channels is deliberately manipulated for specific purposes, whether to play on emotions and gather support for a cause, or to mischievously spread fake news with the intention of inciting violence or polarising audiences, the outcome is likely to be calamitous.

In recent years, digital technological advances have led to many positive changes in society and made connection and communication much easier, so much so that it is hard to imagine life without such services. But these advances have also given rise to new threats and challenges, including the proliferation of hate speech, the spread of disinformation, and the sowing of confusion and division among members of society.

Because there is no middle actor such as an editor or moderator between the originator and the consumer of information, there is no regulation over what is posted, and literally anything goes. It’s a war out there, and the battle is being fought for our attention.

“This is the new economic system – the attention economy," said veteran journalist and Nobel peace laureate Maria Ressa, speaking to the National Press Club in Washington in September 2023. "We are Pavlov's dogs, experimented on in real time, with disastrous consequences."

Ressa is well known for her work in fighting the spread of online misinformation and fake news, and exposing abuse of power, particularly during the tenure of the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte.

The attention economy treats human attention as a commodity to be exploited just like any other. To convert someone to a cause or consumer product, it is vital to capture their attention first and then to hold it until they take the desired action. So it is with information shared on social media – once the information consumer’s attention has been secured, it is just a matter of steering them in the desired direction.

"Social media has become a place for information warfare," Ressa said.

Threat to democracy

Democracy itself has become vulnerable to such machinations. The effects of the information war are felt keenly in this space, where the micro-targeting of individuals on social media is deliberately aimed at exploiting fears, tensions, and vulnerabilities.

“In several countries this has led to the election of leaders who are populist, violent, and in many instances, anti-democratic,” says CODE executive director Kavisha Pillay.

This is disturbing news especially in this year, when important elections will take place in at least 64 countries, as well as the European Union which elects its Parliament. The populations of these countries, says Time, together account for almost half of everyone alive. Another source says the expected actual number of voters is around 25%, or 2-billion. Either way, with such large numbers of people in play, the effects of information manipulation are bound to be considerable.

Pillay says: “One of the most significant dangers posed by social media companies is their potential to manipulate democratic elections through targeted advertising.”

Companies use complex algorithms to collect and analyse vast amounts of data on individual users, including their demographics, browsing habits, and political preferences, Pillay adds. “This data is then used to create personalised political ads that are designed to appeal to specific groups of voters, play on their vulnerabilities, and influence their opinions and behaviours. The process, known as micro-targeting, has been used in various election campaigns around the world, often with devastating effects on the democratic process.”

In the 2016 US presidential election, concerns arose that advertising microtargeting could distort the political process and be weaponised by foreign agents, says an article on the Australian ABC News website. This was later proven to have been the case. “Facebook reported that Russia-connected accounts spent more than $100 000 on Facebook ads during the 2016 campaign.”

The result was that a populist and vehemently nationalist president with no prior government experience, and who would go on to be impeached twice, claimed the top seat in the White House and seeks to do so again in 2024.

In the 2020 US presidential election, misinformation again played a role in determining the result.

Besides the US, the effects of micro-targeting have been demonstrated in India, Brazil, and the Philippines, among others.

Fighting for the truth

Ressa, a Philippines citizen who founded the Filipino online news site Rappler, has strong words regarding the manipulation of information for political purposes. “Everyone is a victim of tech platforms’ attack on the truth. If you have no facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no rule of law — we have no democracy," she said.

British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who played a major role in exposing Cambridge Analytica’s and Facebook’s manipulation of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and the 2016 US presidential election, agreed about the complicity of tech firms in these nefarious activities.

Giving a TED talk in 2019, she said: “It is not about left or right, or Leave or Remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. As it stands, I don’t think it is.”

Cadwalladr accused tech companies of helping to drive the rise of authoritarianism. “You set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that the same technology is now driving us apart.”

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