Authored by Anjali Kumari & Utkarsh Aryan, 4th year law students at Chanakya National Law University, Patna
This article attempts to showcase how data harvesting is a violation of one’s privacy, its interconnection with elections and the canvassing of votes, and how the dream of global connectivity via the internet has torn us apart.
Does your microphone listen to you to garner personal information to target personalised advertisements? I posed this question to my friends, and they all recounted several instances where they felt that their smartphone's microphone was used to listen to their conversations to serve ads and suggestions for the products or services they were discussing lately. However, it is much more likely that the algorithm used to target advertisements is highly accurate, as it has every activity that you indulge in on the internet. This bundle of data is called your digital footprint.
Consider this: your mother asks you to look for a new mixer grinder, as the one in the kitchen has seen its days. Once tired of window shopping for the best one available within your budget, you decided to do some mindless scrolling on some social media platforms, and to your utter surprise, started getting recommendations of mixer grinders and other complimentary kitchen appliances in the form of advertisements, posts, review videos, etc.
On the Internet, customised advertising that is explicit about each person's digital footprint appears. This is how advertising works. The targeting of people based on their online behaviour is what's happening instead of a large billboard that can be seen by everyone driving by; this is made possible by the ongoing collection of data from personal devices. It could be one of the reasons why companies deal with third-party data brokers to analyse ongoing trends, consumer behaviour, and consumption patterns that eventually help them make advantageous investment decisions.
However, the pertinent question is whether there is any problem regarding customised advertisement, as it increases the reach to more consumers and brings better leads to the consumer, ranging from particulars and quality of a product to suggestions of complementary goods. The research would primarily explore the scandal revolving around the company Cambridge Analytica and its questionable practice of using people's data to create psychological profiles of them and then targeting them with unique content in the form of advertisements to change their viewpoint in favour of the objective of a particular campaign.
Significance of Social Media (Post)
In one of my classes at university, a professor, while discussing the role social media profiles play in recruitment, emphasised that one should make a captivating social media presence in line with the philosophy of the companies where one would like to work. Not having an account on any social media platform, I expressed my concern about the unfavourable impacts of the same. He replied that the employer would take this as strange, and this dawned the realisation upon me that social media is ubiquitous, and one simply cannot afford to ignore it as it is pertinent from both social and economic perspectives.
It’s an undeniable fact that the internet has become the oxygen of the modern world, penetrating every sphere, be it education, medicine, administration, employment, etc., and the recent launch of AI has opened floodgates of opportunity and prospects for exploration. Currently, 65.7% of the global population, i.e., 5.3 billion, are internet users, of whom 4.95 billion are social media users. Meta is ruling the social media world (having over a billion monthly active users) with its four platforms, viz-a-viz Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal
Content-oriented advertising is an excellent marketing strategy whereby personalised advertisements are unique for specific audiences/consumers, and the same has been accepted to a large extent. However, amid great innovation and connectivity, our fundamental right to privacy is in danger. The world experienced this in 2016, infamously termed the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, with its string attached to Trump’s election. This incident lucidly portrayed the extent to which data harvesting and personalized advertisements can challenge the democratic spirit of elections and freedom of conscience. along with interference in the election process.
It all started with an app development named myPersonality by David Stillwell in 2007 at the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, which claimed to collect data from Facebook users for academic purposes once they consent to it. The app was designed to take psychometric tests of users who consented to it based on five indicators, popularly known as the Big Five. These indicators were openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The application assessed the degree of openness of participants to new experiences, their level of conscientiousness or awareness about performing tasks with perfection, what kind of people they prefer to interact with on the app, and the probability that they concur with the opinions and information imparted to them. Neuroticism played an active role in the polarization of votes, as the brains behind the whole scandal knew which section of the voters needed to be targeted with instigating posts.
For instance, this research data was leveraged in the Trump campaign to precisely target three states, i.e., Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, targeting their residents with a little-known feature of Facebook called “Dark Posts”. In such a case, the firm would target voters favoring the bearing of firearms with posts stating - “Did you know Hillary Clinton wants to take your gun away?”
The data analysis firm received the data of American voters in partnership with an Oxford professor, Alexsandr Krogan, who surveyed by the name of thisisyourdigitallife, which ran on Facebook. Whenever a Facebook user took the survey, their entire data on Facebook was delivered to the survey developer. This included likes, comments, groups, and even private messages.
The data harvesting was not limited to the individual who took the survey but also extended to every friend on their Facebook account without their consent, which made a psychological profile of a large number of voters due to the network effect inherent in the process. The responses collected were then tallied with their overall social media activities, web searches, likes, comments, age, and locations in real-time, giving the buyer of such data accurate access to their personality, political affiliation, intelligence, etc.
It led to the categorization of U.S. voters into approximately 32 categories based on their place of residence, color, gender, etc. For instance, the rich concerned with tax concessions were categorized into one, while residents near the borderland concerned about immigration had another profile. Even their clothing acted as an indicator of their political affiliation with Republicans or Democrats.
Furthermore, this categorization enabled micro-targeting of voters during the Trump campaign, i.e., not to campaign where voters were showing allegiance to Republicans but where they were hesitant, enabling strategic communication with mass suiting their desires and even targeting voters with misguiding rhetoric against the rival party through personalized posts and news feeds.
Election Interference Via Social Media Advertisements
An election campaign advertisement usually lists the achievements or reasons for voting for the candidate, paying for the advertisement, or the demerits of the opposition. This is where targeted election advertisement differs, as it aims to find individuals whom to convince via behavioral change and then serve them with content that triggers behavioral change in the target. It is not a general case of an advertisement that is being broadcast on a general platform and is benign, but something much more specific and unethical.
This micro-targeting via campaign was done in Trinidad and Tobago, a deeply polarised country where two communities do not see eye to eye and support two different political parties in a partisan way. However, the population equation is such that it is difficult for one community to win an election in a convincing manner, which makes the election-interfering campaigns decisive. One is the Indo-Caribbeans who support the party of the United National Congress, and the other is the Afro-Caribbeans who support the People’s National Movement Party. Due to the polarization and partisan support enjoyed by these parties, Cambridge Analytica implemented a perfect election interference campaign, which resulted in voter turnout suppression. The campaign targeted young voters by encouraging them not to vote.
Popularized by the name of the Do So! campaign, Cambridge Analytica had high hopes that it would impact young voters from Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean communities differently. The assumption was that young voters from the Indo-Caribbean community would still listen to their parents and vote for the party as instructed, while the young voters from the Afro-Caribbean community would be relatively more defiant, leading to turnout suppression from the Afro-Caribbean community on the voting day. There is clear evidence that this campaign suppressed voter turnout enough to allow the United National Congress to come to power.
Aftermath of Cambridge Scandal
Soon after the Cambridge scandal, Facebook took some strong corrective measures to curb misuse of data by third-party apps and prompt notification to users in case it happens. However, there is a need to understand the gravity of online privacy, as many think that they are immune to targeted advertisements and persuasive communications.
The personal information that we share to access some online services or to keep up with the changing world is so precious that tech giants are running trillion-dollar businesses using it, thanks to the reckless attitude of users to instantly agree to the terms and conditions without reading them. The 2016 U.S. election is thus not only about networked privacy and dismantling the democratic process of elections but also how the data and information agencies are concentrating the currency of the future. Soon after the scandal, the U.S. witnessed an extreme takeoff in wealth inequality as compared to the euro-area countries.
The question is: what will we do, as social media is entangling the population in an imaginary world where we are guided by fake narratives and misleading information, ultimately escalating political division and even the rise of populist principles? Testimony of the same can be found in X’s relatively liberal posts that have convinced voters holding moderate views to vote against some party.
Targeted social media posts can convince the masses about the authenticity of some fake news or data. Elections aim to peep into the minds of voters to find the prospective head of State fairly, often one whom they consider reliable and capable of fulfilling their needs; however, the same gets brutally attacked by political stalwarts who invest in ventures facilitating micro-targeting political ads. Therefore, the need of the hour is not to get hoodwinked by whatever we see on the internet and instead be vigilant of the probable misuse of our data.
“....that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” This excerpt, part of the famous Gettysburg Address by erstwhile U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, immortalized the most fundamental aspect of democracy, i.e., the representation and choice of people in selecting a person in a law-making position to represent their interests. Elections are the bedrock upon which the pillars of democracy stand, thus making it pertinent that they are always free and fair. However, the subversion of democracy through election interference is not new. The incidents of booth capture and destruction of ballots are still fresh in the minds of India. As the world moves into the digital age, election interference has also moved to the digital medium, which, due to the inherent nature of the internet, is much larger in scale. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, thus turns out to be a befitting example of the potential impact of social media on turning clicks into votes. Thus, recognizing these dangers and developing a robust policy response is crucial if we are to prevent social media from becoming a gateway to an Orwellian society and influencing elections.
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