How social media influences elections

Little privacy
If you put any personal information on social media platform, you can expect it to be gathered and used.

Social media usage is on the rise, and is becoming an important part of every political strategy. Studies reveal that it is also creating a “fake news ecosystem” spreading misinformation. A few recent news stories which made headlines prior to the elections across the world are:

1. Brazil battles fake news 'tsunami' amid polarised presidential election. The Guardian, October 10, 2018.

2. Disinformation and fake news spreads over WhatsApp ahead of Brazil's presidential election. Independent, October 21, 2018.

3. Report: Swedes bombarded with 'fake news' ahead of election. The Local, September 6, 2018.

The rise of targeted social media feeds, make-believe fake news, the rise of data theft, data harvesting, profiling individuals, bombarding with targeted news feed have affected not only elections but also the outcomes of referendums all over the world. These tools have potentials to change the outcome of any process which is meant to translate popular will in a healthy decision-making, in a healthy representative government.

The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal was a major political scandal in early 2018 when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook (FB) profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes. The scandal was significant for inciting public discussion on ethical standards for social media companies, political consulting organisations and politicians. Consumer advocates called for greater consumer protection in online media and the right to privacy as well as curbs on misinformation and propaganda.

How Cambridge Analytica misused FB data

Aleksandr Kogan, a data scientist at Cambridge University, developed an app called “This Is Your Digital Life”.Users were paid to take a psychological test through the seemingly harmless quiz through this app. But it was not just the answers people gave in the quiz. The real crown jewel was the open access it gave Cambridge Analytica to its FB accounts. It also gathered data on a person’s FB friends, according to the reports.

Kogan provided this app to Cambridge Analytica, and it in turn arranged an informed consent process for research in which several hundred thousand FB users would agree to complete a survey only for academic use. However, FB's design allowed this app not only to collect the personal information of people who agreed to take the survey, but also the personal information of all the people in those users' FB social network. At the same time, the app also gathered the test-takers' FB friends' personal information. In this way Cambridge Analytica acquired data from more than 50 millions of FB users. The Cambridge Analytica used an algorithm capable of psychologically profiling users from their FB interactions alone. This was against FB's "platform policy" which banned the collection of friends' data for advertising or any reasons besides improving user experience.

How the data was used for targeted political ads

The app used the “Big five” personality test on various parameters, which has been used by psychologists for years. It scores the individual on five core traits.

1. Openness: Do you welcome new experiences?

2. Conscientiousness: How much of a perfectionist are you?

3. Extroversion: Do you love a party?

4. Agreeableness:How compassionate are you to others?

5. Neuroticism: Do you often worry, or get easily upset?

Blended together, these broad traits sorted people into different personality types. For example: An Adventurer (he/she’s open, a bit neurotic, and loves variety), a Protector (agreeable, extroverted, he thinks of others) or, an Executive (conscientious, open, and he/she’s a natural leader).

The algorithm has proved impressively accurate. It is surprising that with just 10 “likes” (on your FB page) it is better in guessing what kind of person you are than your colleagues, who have 150 “likes”. Imagine, every day, we share more than just “likes”. Our digital footprint is a vast, ever-growing web of status posts, shares, messages, photos all of which provide FB future insights in to who we are.

Cambridge Analytica was employed by Donald Trump’s campaign team during the 2016 US presidential election. The company’s former boss, Alexander Nix, claimed before the election to have predicted the Big five score of every adult in America. But what did they do with that information? On FB, hundreds of advertisements were posted every day, targeted specific personality types, tailored towards people’s innermost fears, needs and emotions. More than 6.6 million tweets were circulated across Twitter in the month leading up to the election that were tied to “fake news and conspiracy news publishers”.

To understand it better, let’s take an example of one of Trump’s key pledges i.e. to defend the Second Amendment: The right of the individual to carry a gun. It was the user’s Big Five score which dictated which advertisements will land in their news feed. For example: the Adventurer, the open-minded, impulsive, sometimes nervous individuals might get the advertisement/news feed something like this... “freedom must be protected from outside threats” or for the Protector, the guardian, an advertisement suggesting like this…“guns are an essential tool in safeguarding others”. And finally, the Executive, the rational-thinking forward planner receives a message about protecting his/her family and the future.

But can Big data win an election? Cambridge Analytica claims it did. They said it was their data and research that gave President Trump the winning margin. But that’s near impossible to prove. No one can track in retrospect, who voted which way, because of which advertisements. There are simply too many variables. Political parties around the world will be considering the lessons of Cambridge Analytica. The Big Data genie is out of the bottle. But will it change the adverts you see in your next election? And will those adverts change your mind?


Today, social media matters a lot. Everyone is biased, and social media shapes and broadcasts these biases in profound ways. In short, the social media is changing the world, and most of the time social media drives traditional media even. The news cycle has completely changed since the rise of the social networking sites. Journalists often get much of their news from following key social media accounts where the news stories are also shared by readers/viewers, which has shifted the news cycle into a new paradigm. Hence more political candidates will use social media, to create viral photos, videos and targeted fake news to their advantage. Use of social media and disseminating viral fake news will always have voters being misled. It also reflects the potential for people on the extremes to be trapped in echo chambers that aren't just reinforcing their opinions, but providing them with false and misleading factual claims that seem to reinforce those opinions.

It can be concluded: First, if you put any personal information on social media platform -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever -- you can expect it to be gathered and used. That should be old news to most of you, but people still seemed surprised when they learn how little "privacy" there actually is on the net. Second, no matter how interesting or amusing an FB quiz looks, if it requires you to let it access your account, don't take it. The only purpose of these quizzes is to gather your information. Finally, check to see which apps already have access to your data. There may be apps that you may not be using and are just draining your data. Delete them.

(The author, an IPS officer of the 2005 batch, Kerala cadre, is a socially conscious cop, a wellknown cyber expert, and an author of the must-read book 'Is Your Child Safe?' He has had an outstanding and illustrious career as senior superintendent of police in Kerala. Direct your queries to

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