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Web Analytics and Elections

The Smart Minute – David Kazu

“We interfered, we interfere, and we will interfere,”; these were the words of Yevgeny Prigozhin; a Russian oligarch in an admission last year that we can expect more Russian interference in American elections.

In the era of digital politics, the use web analytics through elections has become a source of intense scrutiny. This synergy allows political entities to harness data-driven insights for finely tuned campaign strategies, raising ethical concerns about the manipulation of democratic processes. Web analytics empowers campaigns to meticulously tailor messages based on user behaviors and preferences, promising a more personalized outreach. However, this precision also raises questions about the ethical boundaries of political influence. As we explore this intersection, we’ll dive into the methods employed, the ethical considerations at play, and the broader implications for democracy. 

This podcast invites a critical reflection on the delicate balance between using technology for effective communication and preserving the integrity of the electoral process.

Over the past decade, many countries had to rely on the misuse of web analytics, with nations such as China, Russia, and Iran leveraging generative AI to target US election infrastructure or their own politics. In countries that held elections or referendums a staggering 93% of internet users, equivalent to 1.6 billion people, have faced election interference, showing the magnitude of the issue. The remaining 7% which accounts for 130 million users were able to experience an unbiased experience. These numbers are outrageous!

Another clear example could be Cambridge Analytica where the company misuse 50 million users’ personal data to create detailed psychological profiles. This was then use by the Trump team in the 2016 election race so that campaigns could target more effectively each demographic.

The internet represents a powerful instrument for challenging state power and asserting fundamental freedoms. In today’s day & age, this technology is now a double-edged sword. Social media surveillance, a comprehensive data collection process, raises ethical questions concerning privacy and individual freedoms, especially when political views, social interactions, or personal attributes can lead to scrutiny and punishment.

An Article of the Guardian explained how Team Jorge, an Israeli unit led by Tal Hanan, helped intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies secretly manipulate public opinion. The unit was in contact with several countries such as Kenya, Indonesia, Russia and Nigeria.

In essence, those wielding influence over public opinion hold a significant advantage in shaping a favorable outcome, capable of generating votes that may influence future legislation, business negotiations, or maintain a particular status quo.

There are multiple ways we can interfere in an election. 

Over the past year, 24 countries used methods of content manipulation such as propagandistic news, outright fake news, paid commentators, bots, and the hijacking of real social media accounts to distort the media landscape. According to Freedomhouse, the extremist parties are usually better equipped to exploit social media than their moderate rivals.

Sinan Aral, a MIT expert in the field explained that fake news is 70% likely to be retweeted than true information. Fake news also travels 6x faster than accurate ones. He later explains the concept of novelty which is that human brains are more drawn towards what’s new.

The use of algorithm and web analytics can lead to the creation of separate realities in which your content is completely different from your counterparts based on a series of personal factors. Initiatives such as Twitter’s news verification may initially appear promising, yet the question arises whether any platform can truly be the arbiter of truth across all topics. Aral pointed out that even well-intentioned efforts could inadvertently legitimize false information that manages to evade scrutiny.

Addressing the issue necessitates proactive measures. Initiatives like the Election Technology Initiative can provide resources to counter election interference, emphasizing the importance of maintaining public trust, transparency, and the enforcement of citizens’ rights. Without informed debate and action, democratic principles face a permanent threat.

Authorities in 12 countries are resorting to legal measures, including criminal charges, to control online speech during elections highlight the need for have legal safeguards in the digital domain.

The MIT led by Aral and Dean Eckles came with a 4-step plan to fight social media manipulation in elections.

MIT proposes a systematic approach to catalog exposures to manipulation, combining exposure and voting behavior datasets, and assessing the effectiveness of manipulative messages. This solution advocates for a nuanced understanding of the trade-offs between privacy, free speech, and democracy. 

Navigating the intersection of web analytics and privacy demands collaboration with social media platforms and privacy-preserving methods. Achieving a scientific understanding of social media manipulation on elections is a civic duty, urging a public discussion on the associated trade-offs.

As social media disrupts our world, influencing elections and propagating fake news at an alarming rate, the absence of regulations renders democracies vulnerable to foreign and domestic attacks. In this evolving digital landscape, striking a delicate balance between technological advancements and preserving the democratic process is imperative for the future of global governance.

-David-Christian Kazu

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