In late January, several international directors of Facebook met in Madrid with representatives of the most important political parties on the national scene. The reason for this unusual meeting was to explain the measures that this social network will take to prevent the dissemination of hoaxes and fake news during election campaigns. It is not the first time that this has happened: in the last American midterm elections Facebook did the same thing. Why is this ‘intrusion’ of Facebook on the political stage?
The company of Mark Zuckerberg has expressed concern that it has been targeted. During the Arab Spring of 2011, it was discovered that social networks had a lot of potential as ‘media’. Due to the danger of these popular revolts, many traditional media outlets did not dare to send their journalists, and they were forced to use as a source those protesters who published, in their personal accounts, videos and photos of what was happening live. As a result of the success achieved with this technique, many media companies began using social networks as a speaker, to reach a greater number of people. This produced in public opinion the feeling that, in these alternative channels, the information was more truthful and secure. But nothing further from reality.
The ban on disinformation tactics was opened, and the results soon arrived. At the beginning of last year, the malpractice of one of these companies came to light: Cambridge Analytica. This company used the analysis of data, what is now known as Big Data, in the development of advertising campaigns for brands and politicians seeking to “change the behavior of an audience”. A company worker revealed that it had obtained the information of more than 87 million Facebook users through personality tests that they launched as an application within this social network. From these data, they made individual psychological profiles, and thus discovered what the tone and message of their political campaigns should be like. To influence users’ opinions and modify their behavior, Cambridge Analytica created a series of blogs and pages in the social network to flood it with fake news and open fake debates, which benefited the political candidates who had hired them. The strategies used focused mainly on raising fear against immigrants and discrediting the political rivals of their clients.
What is more, the Cambridge Analytica organigram included well-known faces, such as the famous billionaire Robert Mercer, or Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan. But the most famous of all was Steve Bannon, advisor and campaign director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, who, against all odds, won the elections in 2017, after a very controversial campaign. In addition to Bannon being involved, the scandal had even more controversy, such as the company’s connections with Russia, through Aleksandr Kogan. In recent years, Russia has been investigated and accused for its cyber attacks on almost all Western states, in particular, allegedly meddling in electoral processes.
The voter must form a critical opinion and raise a series of filters to discriminate information more efficiently.
We will be never know exactly the real impact that Cambridge Analytica’s strategy had on the U.S. elections. But, in any case, it was shown that Facebook was not able to protect the privacy of millions of users. Nor did it know how to combat the creation of blogs and fake news pages that infected its social network during the campaign period. Cambridge Analytica opened a security breach with little effort, proving once again the danger of publishing all our lives on social networks. For all this, Facebook was fined in many countries and, in addition, Zuckerberg had to go to the U.S. Congress for accountability purposes. Due to the criticism and the sanctions imposed, the company has introduced algorithms and filters with which to try to prevent it from disinforming users.
But in reality, what are fake news? According to the Cambridge dictionary, they are false stories, in the form of news, disseminated on the Internet or other media and created to influence political affairs. Such importance has acquired the concept that, in 2017, was designated word of the year in English. However, its definition has blurred, because it has been used uncontrollably. Many politicians already disqualify as fake news all the information that harms them. The greatest exponent of this abuse of the term is Donald Trump, who describes as fake news all the criticism his Administration receives.
The conclusion we can draw from all these scandals is obvious: democracy is threatened by the lack of privacy that exists in social networks. That the largest and best known social media platform in the world has been used for the benefit of some politicians means that the vote of those who were exposed to the ‘infection’ of Cambridge Analytica was adulterated and manipulated by professionals of deception. Unfortunately, there is evidence that these misinformation campaigns also occurred during the last elections in Brazil, and in the Brexit referendum. Something extremely serious, since one of the fundamental principles of democracy is that all citizens exercise their right to vote with complete freedom. If it disappears from the equation, we cannot call it democracy.
For all these reasons, fake news and its dissemination through social networks are two of the great challenges for politicians and journalists in the coming years. There are platforms that are dedicated to denying hoaxes and false news that have become viral. But this effort does not correspond exclusively to the media. Voters must also act. The solution is in our hands, in our personal responsibility. It depends on what news we consume and what data we upload to our social networks. Discovering that some news is false and that it intends to manipulate us is not difficult: we have the tools that the Internet offers us to be able to verify whether the channel or the content is true. Certainly, the huge flow of information in which we live immersed complicates this task, but that requires that we do not let it happen and that we do not buy into everything we read, but the opposite: we must form a critical opinion and raise a series of filters that help discriminate the news more efficiently. That does not imply falling into cynicism, but putting suspicious news into question. Nor would it hurt that we were more jealous of our privacy.