Social media is harming our democracies and ads are just the tip of the iceberg

Op-eds Opinions

Twitter banning political ads is a good start, but more work is needed to combat cyber interference

Graphic by Adrian Dunkerson, Graphics Contributor

The fact that politicians lie is nothing new — just ask Niccolo Machiavelli. But now, social media has made it increasingly easy to spread lies to voters, often relying on bots to do so. 

On Oct. 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would ban political ads. In a tweet, Dorsey said, “we believe the reach of political messages should be earned, not bought.” 

Meanwhile, Facebook has decided to not only continue to run political ads but also to not fact-check them — basically allowing politicians to say whatever they want, as long as they pay Facebook. 

Since its creation, social media has allowed politicians to reach voters directly. Now, social media works through algorithms, which means that Facebook controls the content users see. Algorithms order posts on social media feeds and targets users with ads based on their activity. It makes social media brainwashing and addicting, but it’s an integral part of social media and is completely legal. 

“It’s basically impossible for an advertiser to turn off that ability of Facebook to teach itself. It’s going to show an ad to a bunch of people, and it’s going to show the ad to more people who are like the people who have clicked on it,” said  Rob Smith, a marketing professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, to Global News.

Obviously, this inherently fuels echo chambers and reinforces people’s beliefs and sense of group loyalty. This is also what makes advertising on Facebook so desirable for politicians. 

In the 2019 Canadian federal election, the Liberals outspent the Conservatives on Facebook ads. In the last 90 days, approximately 11 000 political ads have been purchased with the keyword “Justin Trudeau” — many of them not coming from any political party.

Political ads are just the tip of the iceberg, and we are drastically ill-equipped to deal with the rest of the iceberg.

Locally, the MP for Victoria, Laurel Collins, spent nearly $6 000 on political advertising. Collins also used a Facebook Page for her campaign, which she has had since 2015, including during her time as a city councillor. None of the ads purchased by Collins were negative. The runner-up in the riding, Green Party candidate Racelle Kooy, spent just $1 000 on Facebook ads. The Liberal party candidate Nikki Macdonald spent the most with over $8 000. These numbers do not include any spending by the party itself, and only by the candidates’ own  Facebook pages. 

But like I said, politicians have been using money and power to gain influence for quite some time. Although Twitter is trying to change this, social media is harming our democracies in seriously concerning ways. And political ads are only the tip of the iceberg. 

In January, prior to the federal election, Bill C-76 passed, changing Canadian elections law. The law includes new reporting measures for third parties involved in partisan work and attempts to curb foreign interference and spending — including by prohibiting election ads from foreign actors. 

Ahead of the 2019 federal election, the Canadian government released a report that examined the likelihood of cyber interference in the election, amid reports of foreign interference in the U.S. presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit referendum. The report detailed some ongoing misinformation campaigns. For example, Russia’s Internet Research Agency promoted false stories like “Canadian NHL Player CONSIDERING ‘Taking a Knee’ During U.S. Anthem” on Twitter in 2017. Before the election, federal parties were informed of efforts to influence voters by six foreign countries, and just two weeks after the election, the growth of Wexit on social media is being investigated as Russian interference. 

Inside our own borders, companies are using your data on social media to influence the election. One of the biggest political strategy and lobbying firms, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, used artificial intelligence (A.I.) to gain information on 29 key ridings across Canada during the election. The A.I. acted like a normal constituent, gaining data as it learned from other people’s interactions around it. H+K Strategies was then able to use that data to predict the election’s outcome. Their estimate was more accurate than the aggregate of all public polls. 

Political ads are just the tip of the iceberg, and we are drastically ill-equipped to deal with the rest of the iceberg. Our political systems do not have the tools to even moderately police social media’s influence — and our democracies are going down like the Titanic.