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Utopia or dystopia?

  • Published at 05:02 pm May 21st, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:03 pm May 21st, 2018

By this time every informed citizen of the world should have heard about how Cambridge Analytica gathered the personal data of fifty million Facebook users and used micro-targeting with advertisement, fake news and other clickbait tools to decisively influence the 2016 US Election. Undoubtedly, news of how determined and malicious groups can use social media as weapons to sabotage democracy in influential liberal democracies is very alarming for everyone who wants to see the expansion of pluralist politics. However, it should be noted that in 2012, the Obama campaign harvested the social media data of millions of people without their knowledge also and used it for micro-targeted campaigns. This is very similar to what Cambridge Analytica did in 2016. Predictably, there was no outcry when the Obama campaign did it.

Microtargeting with data analytics and fake-news are big stories now and concerned citizens in established democracies are sweating gallons to protect democracy in the age of weaponized social media. Still, the level of panic may be unwarranted. Political scientists and psychologists have studied political and social persuasion for many years, and an overwhelming majority of studies have found that persuasion is not effective. Targeted messaging, advertisements, fake news and all other tools of political campaigning have very little effect on changing people’s mind about voting. In polarized political environments, where most people already have political preferences, these strategies work even less. Also, fake news is consumed and further transmitted by people who are already heavily partisan. A remarkable feature of the 2016 election was that after all the daily swings in daily polls, the final vote tally really converged to the stable long run average of partisan support. People made up their minds long ago.

While advanced democracies may not be facing mortal peril from weaponized social media, fragile developing countries are a different matter. Two other news of evil use of social media came out two weeks ago. First, Buddhist nationalists and religious extremists in Sri Lanka used Facebook to instigate, organize and direct a deadly and widespread riot against minority Muslims in the capital Colombo. Second, a UN fact-finding mission reported that in Myanmar, social media networks, particularly Facebook, have been extensively used by malevolent people to rile up hatred and instigate violence against Rohingya Muslims. We all know the still ongoing results of that orchestrated hate campaign.

For people of Bangladesh, these news stories will not be at all surprising. We already are familiar with many incidents of using social media to direct violence against minorities and vulnerable groups in the last few years. Social media has been at the center of communal violence in India also. Increasing frequency of these incidents show that societies in developing countries are more at risk from abuse of social media than political institutions of established democracies. Not only are the capacity of state and strength of formal institutions in these countries too weak to stop deadly social violence from breaking out, but the political powers themselves see social media instigated mob-violence as effective political tools.

However, studies of communal violence in the age of social media have shown that rumors and instigations on the Internet are by themselves insufficient ingredients. Even with already prevailing communal tensions and dysfunctional politics, entrepreneurs of violence could not ply their vile trade so easily. Moreover, while social media can be used to start riots, it can also be used to overwhelm the rumor mills with reliable, reassuring information. Now that the world recognizes social media as a double-edged sword, development of quick response strategies from partnerships of media giants, civic leaders and scholars, is of vital importance.

Shafiqur Rahman is a social and political commentator