Guest Column

Social media's ugly side

2018-06-03 00:03


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Everisto Benyera

The scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the British research company that was given access to Facebook users’ personal information for political manipulation purposes, has revealed the real danger of what we commonly call social media.

Calling Facebook a social-media company gives it a significant amount of legitimacy among its operators and users. Some of the users have become addicted to it. They have found marriage, expanded their businesses and enjoyed wider reach of networking opportunities.

The extent of the power that social media, especially Facebook, possesses is often understated. Of the 7.5 billion people in the world, 2.2 billion are regular Facebook users. This means that Facebook has close to 30% of the global population’s data at its disposal. If Facebook was a country, it would have more people than China. This demonstrates the immense power that Facebook has across various countries, which, when not regulated as is the case now, has the potential to undermine democracy and human rights. Facebook’s monopoly in this market is sure to be worrying many governments.

But the less charitable fact about Facebook is that it is not exclusively a “social media” that many think it is. That Facebook presents itself as a
social-media platform is also a deliberate misrepresentation by the company. The social media element gives Facebook the legitimate means to conduct illegal surveillance without a user’s consent.

Put bluntly, Facebook is in the business of collecting and selling its users’ personal information to the highest bidder. Such is the nature of the free market economy, where everything has to be commodified, commercialised and monetised. Facebook commodifies, commercialises and monetises its users by selling advertising – which is not a bad idea if done ethically – and, as we now know, by farming out information without a user’s consent to influence political preferences.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just the tip of the iceberg in this mass deception industry, where unsuspecting users are duped into living their lives online and revealing personal information that is then number crunched and used for various purposes, including targeting specific individuals with political messages.

There is a risk that, if Facebook and other social-media platforms do not restrain themselves or are not subject to regulations that are suitable for democracies (as opposed to censorship in authoritarian states), democracy might be denuded of its meaning.

We might never know if the electoral outcome in a country, region or city was influenced by a political entrepreneur who used social media users’ information without their permission to tamper with their political judgement. The credibility of democratic systems, processes and institutions could be in peril.

This is the kind of danger that Bell Pottinger, the British PR company and ally of the Gupta family, posed to South Africa with its unscrupulous role in the creation of false political images to justify state capture and compromise democracy – all for cash.

As admitted by a Cambridge Analytica executive, malicious messages and videos have been produced and pedalled courtesy of cash flush firms with access to Facebook users’ data and information.

Voters’ perceptions can be unduly altered and influenced, resulting in voters making political decisions and choices based on wrongful and deliberately constructed misleading information. Needless to say, all this happens outside the electoral checks and balances that democracies have developed over the years.

The ultimate result would discredit the idea of democracy because people who are undeserving of public office will emerge victorious, not because voters are prone to making genuine mistakes – which is tolerable in electoral contests – but because someone has made it a professional job to artificially hijack voters’ judgement.

Emerging democracies, especially in Africa, need to draw lessons from the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica connivance. Many electoral oversight institutions on the continent are still in their nascent phase and have hardly reached the consolidation phase. It would be a huge setback if social media, regarded by many as a genuine platform that is credited for having made the Arab Spring uprising possible, is now used to undermine democratic consolidation.

Electoral management bodies have to rethink their monitoring strategies. They have done well to include the criterion of free traditional media to gauge if elections are free and fair, but they must now factor in the use of social media. They have to develop elections monitoring criteria that recognise the value of social media in promoting democracy, as well as its toxic effects when it is hijacked by criminal elements.

After decades of threats from despots to cling to power at all costs, physically bludgeon opposition leaders and monopolise state-controlled airwaves in a bid to prevent the emergence of opposition, the next battle for democracy is likely to be fought over the role of social media. The battle is already raging in the US, where many voters continue to doubt the credibility of the electoral process that led to the rise of President Donald Trump.

To their credit, the Americans are interrogating the effect of social media, particularly Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress in the US and the European Parliament, where he expectedly shed a few crocodile tears. He said: “Whether it’s fake news, foreign interference in elections, or developers misusing people’s information, we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities. That was a mistake, and I’m sorry.”

Of course, the social-media entrepreneurs who fret over the possibility of being overregulated and losing their flexibility to make money, will no doubt invest in lobbying Congress not to be too radical if it decides to introduce regulations.

At least on their part there is an effort – however weak it appears from a distance – to hold the likes of Zuckerberg accountable.

What are the chances of Zuckerberg coming to Harare, Lilongwe or Luanda to account for the damages done by Facebook? Will Facebook send its chief to Africa if so requested? What will happen if the data falls into the hands of serial election riggers in Africa?

Benyera is a professor in the department of political sciences at the University of SA



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