Many appear to be excited when Facebook announced new restrictions on political advertising designed to prevent meddling in Nigerian and other countries with big elections this year. The new rules mean only advertisers located in the country would henceforth be able to run electoral ads. This at least could prevent attempts by outsiders from attempting to influence elections in Nigeria as was the case in the 2015 Presidential election.
Then, Cambridge Analytical, the company that illegally harvested Facebook users date for commercial use, had directed an associated firm, AggregateIQ, to target Nigerian voters with Islamophobic video in 2015. Cambridge Analytical was reportedly hired by a wealthy Nigerian who supported the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan and worked with Isreali computer hackers to steal emails of prominent Nigerians. The intention was to search through the emails for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.
Understandably the bitter contest between President Muhammadu Buhari of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has raised the stakes for the 2019 election, and along with it the prospect of similar operations like those run by Cambridge Analytical in 2015.
This election, as the ones in 2011 and 2015, are being fought not just in the traditional media of radio, television, and newspapers but also across new media platforms including social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This pattern is in line with the trend in other parts of the world beginning with the successful campaign run by Barrack Obama in the 1992 Presidential election.
I can understand the excitement in Nigeria but the regulations, which also cover India, Ukraine, and the European Union, may be too little for it to make any meaning. That’s because the whole issue of Facebook and other social media platforms being exploited to influence elections and political outcomes are slightly more problematic, more complex and therefore cannot be solved by the measures announced by Facebook. But more on Facebook and the threat it represents to democracies later.
There have been suggestions that technology helped Buhari into office when he stood against President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP in the 2015 elections, but that might be stretching the facts. At best, there is little evidence that new media can significantly affect elections result, but there is growing adoption of those new channels for political communication.
It’s necessary to cut through the clutter and state the facts about how new media affects political communication and electoral processes. Principally, Internet-mediated communication enables direct engagement between politicians and the people, allowing both parties to bypass the media. This digital disruption offers the best chance for political change, yet an era in which anyone with a smartphone and data connection is a publisher comes with its own problems.
While it democratizes communication in revolutionary ways, new media is also potentially harmful. Citizen journalism, the practice that allows ordinary people to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information, challenges, complement and extend the work of their traditional media counterparts. However, and as we’re seeing with the increasing incidences of misinformation and fake news – the height of which should be the Buhari and cloned double – the threat they represent to the 2019 elections, it’s clear that not all acts of journalism qualify to be so-called.
Without a doubt, new media and the citizen journalism it enables is a threat to the culture of trust that is at the very heart of journalism. In this new media era, citizen journalists have the penchant, and that’s one of the significant drawbacks.
If citizen journalists represent one side of a bad coin, the ecosystem of new media is the other side. Unlike the traditional media of radio, television and press that have strict codes of operation, entry requirement in new media is so lax, anyone can get in and get out, leaving it susceptible to abuse.
Think for a moment that it takes just a few minutes to set up a profile on Facebook or any of the other social networking sites and once done you become a ‘publisher,’ and you get some sense of what I’m talking about here. Platform owners like Facebook allow users to do this, and for free as well, because its business model profits from having as many people as possible using their services.
Those who should know have stressed the fact that dominant social media platforms are driven by the logic of algorithms, algorithmic automation, targeted advertising, and big data. In other words, they say, fake news will continue to thrive for as long as there’s money to be made from it because the focus on profit is at the heart of growing problems of fake news, political bots, and fake social media accounts. Check my other blog post on fake news for a better understanding of the problem.
Which brings me back to the recent announcement by Facebook. US Investigators, who probed allegations that social media was exploited in favour of President Donald Trump, for instance, found that the indicted men and organisations posed as U.S. persons, created ‘… false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences,’ with the intention … ‘to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.’
So, it’s not just the targeted ads that can be exploited. Facebook will need to prevent the kind of operations described by America’s Department of Justice in the report cited here to avoid any interference in the Nigerian election. It means that even if no one can buy political ads unless they reside in Nigeria, they could still target Nigerians with political content produced in remote locations. Rogue elements, operating ‘troll farms’ have perfected the art of creating fake news, fake accounts and fake attention
online to manufacture the impression that there is enormous support for certain politicians. The exciting thing is that a casual look at Facebook and other social networking platforms like Twitter shows a lot of Nigerians on the payroll of politicians are in on this game, producing political content fake news and misinformation.
If Facebook’s regulation is inadequate, then how do we avoid manipulation of new media for political gains? As noted here, the issue is far more complex than this space allows me to show and apparently, there are no immediate technological solutions. A holistic approach combining technological, legal, political and economic measures looks like the only way out.
Enjoyed reading this? Do leave a comment to let me know what you think of new media and political communication.