Social media interference in votes: it will take more than banning ads

May 10, 2018
Vote on Hacker News

 
On May 25th, Ireland will have a decisive referendum on abortion. Pressure groups are playing hard to influence voters. Facebook and Google have announced measures to monitor foreign influence. But this is far from enough.
 

Playing nice with the Irish

 
Facebook is in a tight spot. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Palo Alto company is still in deep waters. While it has to answer the Irish Supreme Court on data protection in the US, another Irish matter requires attention. The coming vote on abortion. Just like for the US elections or the Brexit, foreign and domestic groups try to influence voters.
 

Banning ads

 
Irish constitution bans foreign interference so Facebook and Google alike have decided to ban ads originating from foreign accounts. This seems indeed a bit coy.
Sure, ads can be so finely tuned that it’s easy to get a guilt-inducing message to a 35-year-old childless woman. Just as easy as comforting the beliefs of a mother of six.
Religions are targeted, political inclinations reinforced and the user is followed by these ads wherever he/she goes. Your web surfing history serves to detect your preferences and you get the “appropriate” ad.
 

Banning foreign ads is far from enough

 
Banning foreign ads only addresses a small part of the problem: foreign interference. What is equally worrisome are the domestic groups and how they try to influence voters. And they’re not always playing nice.
To begin with, they are not banned from posting targetted ads. If you are unlucky enough to be part of a target group, this could get very close to harassment.
Then, in the methods used to influence web users, ads are far from being the only tool.
 

The works of astroturfers

 
Enter astroturfing. I dearly wish this was some sort of Star Wars gimmick but no. All of you, sheathe your lightsabers!
The aim of astroturfing is to give the illusion of grassroots support for something. “Illusion” because it doesn’t drain that much support on its own.
 To achieve this, fake personas have been created and their social profiles completed. Some groups wrangle hundreds of these profiles. They then use these profiles to promote their ideas in forums, Facebook groups and/or pages, presenting themselves as “ordinary citizens”. If this seems like some minor individuals fooling around on the web, it’s time to wisen up.
 

Persona Management Software

 
Companies use “persona management software” to keep track of all the profiles. Human astroturfers get assigned dozens of profiles and get daily IP address changes. Meanwhile, their “profiles” get static IPs to look more “real”. They behave as naturally as possible, posting location and activities.
Their opinion posts are immediately shared by bots (and the other fake profiles) to quickly gain a viral status. Eventually, they come knocking at your notifications door.
 

We have a responsibility

 
If detecting those fake profiles is very difficult, another matter deepens the suggestibility. Your own behavior.
On social networks, we tend to operate in circles. Circles of similar interest. Social network roaming is done for pleasure and few are those who will like pages or enter groups that are on the opposite end of their beliefs spectrum.
I have no lessons to give on that part. I’ll admit having “unfriended” a real-life friend on Facebook, who was publishing what I view as extremist positions. He never mentioned these opinions face to face but I just couldn’t go on reading his extreme posts. I must then admit that I’m staying within circles of people sharing opinions similar to mine.
 

Playing with the echo chamber

 
The echo chamber this creates is the perfect stage for astroturfers. Once they enter your circle, you’ll see their ideas shared, again and again, even by your best friends.
In the same way, those ugly shoes end up looking good after so many commercials, shocking ideas become not so shocking.
We are not all to blame though. Facebook carefully puts forward “groups that you might like”, “pages of interest”, “people you could befriend”… And they all stick to your system of values.
 

Facebook’s ambiguous position

 
So banning foreign ads while getting close to a crucial vote is some kind of action. It is far from being the only course of action though. Fighting off astroturfers and pushing forward posts that don’t always match your beliefs could help to free users from this dangerous partitioning system.
It’s also up to us to use social networks to gain access to other frames of mind. Not shut ourselves off in our certainties.