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Editorial of the Day: Political Microtargeting a Threat to Democracy

Context: The article is discussing the potential negative impact of micro-targeting campaigns on vulnerable Indian voters, particularly in the context of the Karnataka elections. It highlights concerns about privacy breaches and the informational autonomy of voters, and argues for the need to regulate social media platforms through a comprehensive data protection law. The article emphasizes the importance of using digital tools for enhancing democracy through citizen engagement rather than for harvesting personal data for voter targeting.

Political Microtargeting a Threat to Democracy Background

The changing paradigm of political advertising in the age of internet:

  • In today’s world, online presence, which ensures greater outreach, is a key source of competitive advantage. This realisation gave rise to strategic efforts by political parties to tap into the fragmented political discourse by catering to the individual.
  • Earlier, the idea was to capture mass issues. But in the present day and age, the focus of the campaign is the individual. Political parties are increasingly employing data-driven approaches to target individual voters using tailor-made messages.
  • Such profiling has raised huge concerns of data privacy for individuals and has become a burning issue for political debate. Therefore, the concerns related to regulation of the digital world are being debated in all jurisdictions which have experienced the impact of this technological advancement.

What is Political Microtargeting?

  • Political microtargeting (PMT) is a relatively new technique that uses citizens’ personal data to create tailored messages in order to influence their voting behaviour.
  • It involves the use of data analytics and profiling to gather information about voters’ demographics, interests, and behaviors, which is then used to create personalized messages that are more likely to resonate with them.
  • For example, a nurse will be shown an advertisement in which a political party promises to ensure good healthcare, whereas a teacher will receive messages on matters relating to education.
  • Political microtargeting is often used to persuade undecided voters, mobilize supporters, or suppress the opposition’s turnout.

Prominent examples of Political Microtargeting

  • The Brexit referendum campaign, 2016: The campaign used microtargeting techniques to identify and persuade specific groups of voters, such as older voters and those with nationalist tendencies, to support leaving the European Union.
  • U.S. presidential campaign, 2016: Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign used microtargeting techniques to identify and persuade specific groups of voters, such as white working-class voters in swing states, to support him. The campaign reportedly used social media, email, and other digital channels to deliver targeted messages.
  • Two years ago, there was a massive outcry against the hiring, by Indian political parties, of Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analytics firm.

Decoding the Editorial

The article mentions that, in the lead up to the Karnataka elections, there have been reports of citizens getting targeted phone calls and messages asking for their voter preference and party affiliation and it discusses several concerns associated with this political microtargeting. They include:

  • Breach of privacy: Political parties and data analytics firms collect personal data such as phone numbers, addresses, social media profiles, etc., which may not have been willingly provided by individuals. The unregulated collection of such data may lead to the violation of privacy rights of citizens.
  • Impact on voter autonomy: Microtargeting can influence voters by feeding them information that is tailored to their preferences, beliefs, and values. This may undermine the autonomy of voters by limiting their exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. Citizens may end up living in information bubbles that are narrow and fail to reflect a diverse range of opinions.
  • Manipulation of public opinion: Microtargeting is often employed to create highly personalized and emotionally charged messages that can manipulate public opinion. This can lead to a distortion of facts, the spread of misinformation and fake news, and the creation of polarized communities.
  • Threats to democracy: Microtargeting has the potential to undermine the fundamental principles of democracy, such as transparency and accountability. If political parties and data analytics firms collect data and use it to influence voters without disclosure, it can lead to a situation where the electorate is being manipulated without their knowledge or consent.
  • Lack of regulation: The article highlights the lack of regulation in the collection and use of personal data for microtargeting purposes. The absence of regulation means that political parties and data analytics firms can operate with impunity and without accountability. There is a need for a comprehensive data protection law that takes issues such as political microtargeting seriously.
  • Possibility of illegal practices: The unregulated collection and use of personal data for microtargeting purposes may result in illegal practices such as data breaches and hacking. In recent years, regulators in the US and Brazil have held Cambridge Analytica guilty of employing illegal practices while harvesting personal data of millions of Facebook users.

Way Forward

  • The article suggests that any forward-thinking regulatory framework needs to have both supervisory mechanisms in place as well as effective law enforcement tools in its quiver.
  • It further states that the digital revolution is being celebrated everywhere, but the regulatory efforts regarding different spheres of its influence have only been reactionary.
  • Therefore, the scope of a data protection framework needs to be sensitive towards the magnitude of a variety of data usage.  
  • The article emphasizes that the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, which is currently under consideration, needs to be scrutinized to ensure that digital tools are used for enhancing democracy through citizen engagement, and not for harvesting personal data for voter targeting.
  • The article also suggests that the regulators need to catch up with innovators who have continued to develop more advanced technologies and take a proactive approach towards regulating social media platforms and data protection in general.

Beyond the Editorial

Role of Social Media in Democracy:  The role of social media in democracy has become increasingly important in recent years. Here are a few key ways in which social website is impacting the democratic process:

Positive Impact of Social Sites on Democracy:

  • Digital democracy: The evolution of democratic values is possible when individuals can express themselves. Through these venues of openness, social media supports the idea of digital democracy.
  • Setting Accountability: Social communication platform serves as a tool that can hold seemingly invincible governments responsible, question them, and bring about long-lasting change that is led by people rather than by a single vote every few years.
  • Having a Voice: The power that social media platforms must keep people informed is significant. This is evident from the fact that social networking site was hailed as a technology for liberty when they played a crucial part in the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia.
  • Amplifying marginalized voices: Social sites provide a platform for marginalized groups to share their perspectives and mobilize for change.
  • Civic Involvement: Since many individuals use social sites to discuss and debate news, social platforms have significant consequences for civic engagement.

Negative Impact of Social Media on Democracy

  • Creating echo chambers and polarizing the public: Social media algorithms create echo chambers by showing us only what we like, which can lead to polarization of public opinion. The use of social media for political expression has unforeseen societal consequences.
  • Setting for Propaganda: The Google Transparency Report indicates that, over the past some years, political parties have primarily spent roughly $800 million (about Rs. 5,900 crores) on election advertisements. Fraudulent campaigns may be able to propagate divisive ideas with little repercussion as micro-targeting.
  • Foreign Interference: Russian corporations created and promoted bogus Facebook Pages around the 2016 US election, essentially utilizing social media channels as an information sidearm, to sway public opinion. The social website gives nation-states the ability to utilize these platforms to fight a virtual war aimed at dividing society.
  • False Information: Social communication sites provide people a greater voice and are occasionally exploited by anyone to disseminate lies and false information.
  • Unfair Participation: Social networking sites also skews how decision-makers view the public’s perspective. This is due to the misconception that social media sites tend to reflect people from all backgrounds, even though not everyone uses their voice in the same way.

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