The rise of ‘social media rule’

If government uses social media to bypass advertising spending in newspapers, it would be deliberately debilitating the newspaper industry’s power to keep power accountable by cutting into its revenue

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

One of the scariest facts to emerge from the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica revelations was the extent to which the precise science of data analytics can map out voters’ preferences and prejudices, and be used for nefarious purposes.

Cambridge Analytica is a London-based company accused of using the personal data of 50 million Facebook members to influence the US presidential election in 2016. Although described in the press as a case of ‘hacking’, it transpires that the data collected was scraped from Facebook user profiles, after users granted permission for a third-party app to access their data. In a sense, this makes it more sinister than hacking: there is a level whereby ordinary social media users are (albeit unwittingly) complicit in the exploitation of their own personal data.

This raises a number of worrying possibilities, not all of which have to do with politics. Big data and advanced technologies, when coupled with artificial intelligence, can easily depose the utility of human jobs: a challenge that will become a hallmark of modern capitalism as more jobs become automated and a large skills gap emerges between these automated jobs and lower-skilled workers.

But when big data is used to poison electorates’ way of thinking, we find ourselves facing a crisis of authenticity that is directly invested in undermining freedom and democracy. For the Cambridge Analytica scare story is about how the data mining efforts of the information available on Facebook – which users are giving away for free, unaware of the danger – can be used by politicians and consultants to send out fake news targeted to people’s prejudices. It is no surprise that the worst elements of modern right-wing politics – namely the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign – have been among the first to capitalise on this insalubrious invasion of the voters’ psyche.

Certainly, this has been one of the most striking – though not unknown – revelations of the Cambridge Analytica saga: we would never let the government track our location or store our personal data, but we seem to be willing to give digital giants unfettered access to the same data... with no guarantee as to whether the data will be passed on to third parties, or what use would be made of it.

This fact alone shines a spotlight on the way politics are done in Malta. Social media is fair game for parties, where voters are swayed by the use of sponsored posts, viral videos, and targeted ads thanks to the demographic metrics offered by Facebook and Google’s algorithms. A MaltaToday analysis recently found that over €2 million had been spent on this type of social ads.

One expects that government should be transparent on its social media spending. In parliament, ministries are regularly expected to disclose their annual expenditure on newspaper advertising. But if government uses social media to bypass advertising spending in newspapers, it would be deliberately debilitating the newspaper industry’s power to keep power accountable by cutting into its revenue. Facebook does not question power: live-streaming, video-posting and sponsoring uncritical reports can buy governments and parties’ marketing influence at a relatively low cost while dead-legging the mainstream media.

There’s another consideration that should temper those who fear “rule by social media”. In reality, Malta’s tried and tested stomping ground remains the street and the rapport between politicians and their crucial voters.

Malta’s electoral history and tight-knit, community-based system of canvassing have created an intimate relationship between voter and politician. Voters have constantly reaffirmed party loyalties cemented through generations of family tradition; voters have shown to be motivated, in part, by the spoils of patronage and vote for parties that can govern and ‘return the favour’; government offices have micro-targeted the 300,000-strong electorate through phone-calls requesting potential voters “whether they need anything”; even big business bankrolls party, secretly if possible, to buy influence on policy-making and to lobby for favour in regulators where MPs are present, such as the Planning Authority.

It is hard to think that the Maltese political system, with an electoral system whose districts create historic links with MPs, will ever overcome the culture of patronage that fuels the way political parties act and think.

But it is this nexus in the politician-voter relationship that keeps Maltese democratic participation from evolving into a democratic culture of rights and obligations. The Gaffarena saga, resolved this week when a court ordered the rescission of the public lands granted incorrectly to the entrepreneur, is a case in point.

Without a public register of lobbyists as employed in the EU, with free and unfettered access to politicians that requires no disclosure, without a public register of gifts based on the US system, without full-time MPs and higher-paid ministers, without serious restrictions on direct procurement practises, patronage will remain not just an indivisible part of Maltese politics: it will be the sure-fire way in which election victories can be “bought” through the public purse.

The irony is that, by consenting to a system that allows political parties – as well as corporate interests – unfettered access to our own personal data, we are only aiding and abetting the same system of patronage that is slowly poisoning the political arena.