The scope of the witch hunt to place blame after the 2016 U.S. election was broadened this week, expanding beyond Russian influence to that of advertising agencies mining data from social networking sites like Facebook to shape and target the messaging users receive. It’s an absurd consideration.
People signing up for social media sites readily share their own information. While they might harbour an unrealistic expectation of privacy, they can pick and choose what data is available to the public and what isn’t. It’s hard to imagine that someone self-identifying as liberal or conservative wouldn’t foresee that volunteering that information might have some kind of political purpose. Those who give their ages, locations, and professions likely also volunteer that information to allow others to locate them and identify them by those descriptors.
While a Facebook app designer might have improperly shared that information with the firm Cambridge Analytica, its application still warned users that they would have to consent to sharing their profile data with the user and that firm could easily have designed any click-bait quiz it chose for its purposes of collecting information while not violating its terms of service with the company. Perhaps, that’s an issue for social media companies and policy makers to grapple with but it still comes down to people risking their own data and that’s a discussion they will rightly have in the coming weeks.
The leap, however, is that somehow campaigns using this type of technology are somehow stealing or tainting elections — and, yes, it sounds just as ridiculous to say that spies are somehow subverting the public to peddle influence. Simply, would one not expect anyone worth their salt in advertising or in politics not to take advantage of every piece of technology available to help share their message? Anyone who doesn’t try to innovate likely shouldn’t be in the game, and it’s a good bet the winning campaign wasn’t the only one involved.
A real question worth answering is why people have become so outraged that there are people using information to influence votes. Propaganda and advertising has been used for decades from people of all political stripes to convince the masses to bend one way or another. No one side or ideology has the market cornered on so-called fake news either — and, even so, with echo chambers created by coding algorithms, wouldn’t most of this partisan news only serve to stoke existing divisions and fire up those who already have drawn their party lines in the sand? It almost seems like the outrage is more that a seemingly unpopular side was able to win than the fact some big, bad bogeyman is trying to sway opinions.
Ultimately, these questions of influence all come down to the idea that there should be one hegemonic view of things and that somehow humans aren’t intelligent enough to dare to possess their own viewpoints. Clearly, those daring not to conform have been tainted in some way. That’s a pretty sad commentary on political involvement and of society.
The world can look for culprits if it wants to, but the better solution is showing the diversity of opinion that exists and promoting critical thinking at a young age. With eyes wide open to a spectrum of information, it’s less likely people will be unduly influenced — unless that was the goal all along, only with a different point of view emerging.