As general election looms, beware the social media battleground!

How to become a savvy consumer of political news over social media

In the months leading to the 2018 general election, Malaysia was rocked with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The British data mining company tried to collaborate with the then Umno-Barisan Nasional government to manipulate and polarise voters’ sentiments to the advantage of the ruling coalition.

Fortunately for fair-minded Malaysians, the attempt failed and Cambridge Analytica’s illegal use of data mined from social media was soon exposed, ultimately leading the company to bankruptcy. Facebook even had to apologise to its users for breach of privacy.

Social media companies like Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube), Twitter and Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) make their vast fortune from scraping, harvesting and packaging the detailed personal data of their users through their users’ consumption patterns and habits.

These highly customised data may then be sold to other companies to be used in targeted advertising. This business model is called “surveillance capitalism“, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School.

As we can see in the Cambridge Analytica case and the Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, surveillance capitalism is not only restricted to commercial use but has also expanded into politics.

Central to surveillance capitalism is the algorithms employed by social media companies to track and mine users’ data, especially what the users’ like.

The algorithms serve two purposes:

  • they provide a customised data package of users that advertisers can then use to fine-tune their marketing
  • they shape and enhance users’ social media experience by feeding users more of what they like
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In politics, the algorithms can provide valuable data to political operators, who then exploit these data to target specific demographic groups with tailored political messages. The goal is to manufacture tension and worsen polarisation between groups in society – which ultimately benefits the political operator.

At the users’ end, by feeding them more of what they like, the algorithms create a phenomenon known as the “echo chamber“. 

Within the echo chamber, users only see newsfeeds of what they like. They are not exposed to other points of views and only receive information that reinforces their own existing beliefs and prejudices.

This results in a state of mind called cognitive bias, where captive users adamantly believe that their worldviews – shaped, fuelled and fortified by the echo chamber – constitute the singular ‘truth’.

When faced with opposing views, the captive users burrow deeper into their defensive shell – which then worsens polarisation among groups in society. We can observe this worrying trend not just in Malaysia but across the globe as well.

Considering how vulnerable identity politics in Malaysia is to irresponsible provocations and ethno-religious triggers, the polarisation in society will only get worse as the general election draws closer.

After all, most people in Malaysia receive their political news from social media. According to one survey, Facebook in Malaysia has about 24 million users, making up about 75% of the total population.

So social media sites have become a pivotal battleground for political actors as they seek to influence and attract voters to their side.

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Apart from the algorithms, social media sites will be inundated with fake accounts and bots trolling their political opponents while spreading and magnifying false news and disinformation until the public perceives such reports to be legitimate.

Self-policing by social media companies has proven to be an utter failure in curbing the problem.

The onus now falls with individual users and the government on how to minimise the threats posed by social media against democracy.

Individuals should learn how to filter and evaluate information they receive in their social media feeds.

Users can also actively diversify the sources of news they subscribe to in social media so that they can be exposed to a variety of views and not just the ones that confirm their personal biases. It is one way to circumvent the tailor-made newsfeeds shaped by the algorithms.

The government can introduce an educational module on social media literacy in schools, universities and government offices to teach the public how to become responsible social media users.

Responsible social media users translate to civil, empathetic, accountable and informed people – a necessary ingredient in the preservation and maturity of our democratic system.

The government can also pressure social media companies to accept a country-based board of oversight comprising tech experts, academics, human rights activists, policymakers and minority group representatives.

Such a board would complement the social media companies’ own internal monitoring systems and self-policing practices.

The board of oversight can help to fine-tune the mechanism used by social media companies to filter out fake news and hate speech, which is often clunky and erratic.

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We must educate ourselves on how to become responsible social media users, as social media has turned into a fiercely contested political space from which most of us receive our news updates.

As political actors engage in the war of ‘truths’ online, we can avoid the crossfires by carrying out our own due diligence by verifying information and taking the time to think before sharing a Facebook post or tweet.

Democracy does not only depend on the deliberative process of its representatives. It also needs the careful deliberation of its participants so that they become well-informed people who are not easily swayed by passion and irrationality.

It is a lesson we should learn as we head into the coming general election.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
28 September 2022



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