Social Media Manipulation Is Threatening Democracy—How You Can Educate Yourself

August 2, 2019

I’d like you to pause for a moment and think about how your friends would describe you to others. Which traits make you, well, you? Is it that side-serving of sass with every conversation they’d comment on? Or maybe your steadfastness? Or perhaps it’s your tendency to daydream, while your inner artist creates?

Now consider those things you’re particularly passionate about; I’m talking about the causes that speak to you. Is it furthering cancer research since your uncle passed? Maybe it’s assisting underprivileged children in your community? Or is it raising awareness about climate change upon returning from a vacation to a bleached coral reef? What do you believe in and feel inclined to fight for?

We are who we are based on a complex dynamic of nature vs nurture. The fundamentals of our personality are there for life, but they’re malleable: subject to influence from traumatic childhoods, life-changing experiences in adolescence and powerful interactions with the people that come and go from our lives thereafter.

Our beliefs, however, are almost entirely shaped by our experiences. We might be incredibly self-disciplined and hard-working by nature, but the nurture we receive may channel that ambition toward either good or evil, to put it plainly. If we’re taught that acquiring monetary wealth (at no matter the cost) is the most admirable priority one can strive for, an exploitative and wasteful fast-fashion company might be on the cards. If we learn that living harmoniously with nature is most important, however, an organic, low-waste, farm-to-restaurant operation might be the business model instead. Nurture has one woman living in fear of scarcity while another knows that abundance results from community and collaboration. One has learned that it’s better to dislike what she does not understand while the other finds beauty and fulfillment in learning from the unknown.

My point is that we are plastic—susceptible to influence and manipulation from those around us. Particularly while we’re young, but truly throughout our lives. If this thought makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. To consider oneself vulnerable to the opinions and ideologies of those around us is to take the first step in protecting oneself from exploitation and malevolent psychological manipulation.

All this comes about following the documentary that’s got everyone talking: The Great Hack, which elucidates the sinister side of our interconnected, online lives. Specifically, how the very foundations of our democracy are threatened as a result of our impressionable nature that renders us susceptible to being swayed by targeted advertising. Scary, huh?

If you’ve not seen it, I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a watch; if for nothing more than learning a little bit more about the whole Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal that took the world by storm last year. Regardless of your political stance on the Brexit vote or Trump/Clinton 2016 election, it’s unsettling to consider that the company harvested thousands of data points from millions of UK and US voters to target those on the fence about their beliefs and choice of political candidates. All of this was done without the users’ permission and arguably was a direct interference with the democratic process. Is it really a true democracy if the voters’ beliefs were shaped by targeted advertising displaying false headlines all to evoke hatred toward the opposition?

We saw it with content tailored to youth group BeLeave in the Brexit campaign and those encouraged to vote in favor of Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election: a breakdown of democratic freedom, funded by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who was Trump’s biggest donor and the main investor of Cambridge Analytica.

With ‘digital gangsters’ at firms like Facebook still not being held accountable for subverting democracy in western politics in recent years, it’s time we wise up. Our reliance upon social media to do everything from run our businesses to provide a low-maintenance social life is a given, but how can we be more mindful? There has never been a more important time for us to interact with these platforms with an awareness of our vulnerability to being spoon-fed, if we happen upon one of countless rabbit holes. Not to mention our perpetual FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that can fuel a real addiction to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, having us interact with them far more frequently than news platforms publishing pieces of unbiased, independent journalism.

If you’re a human in the modern world, here are some things to consider if you strive to make informed, educated decisions:

  1. Demand evidence. While we’d all like to believe that only fact-checked news go to press, this simply couldn’t be further from the truth. Let your inner scientist guide you and question everything you read. Where’s the evidence to back up the claims being made? Are the facts legitimate or only speculative? Is there a hidden agenda? Where’s the funding coming from?
  2. Share with caution. What started as platforms to connect us are now being used to divide us. We’re at each other’s throats with opinions aplenty, spurred on by targeted advertising planted to encourage extremist behavior among those who show hints of “leftist” or “rightist” ideologies. Share your homemade cakes and your outfits of the day. Share things that inspire thought or compassion. But do everything with a pinch of salt, realizing that until media giants are held accountable, unfortunately any data on you could be used against you.
  3. Educate yourself. It’s instinctive to want to read up more about those things that interest you and I would never discourage you from doing so, but it’s also important to expand your horizons. Whether it’s reading material or your couch and Netflix, pick a new topic as often as you’re able to and learn about it. We live in the information age, so may as well make the most of it. We each have our own different causes, right? So wolf down a slab of humble pie and embrace a foreign perspective every now and then.
  4. Interact with diplomacy. The comments section of any platform can honestly reveal the most revolting dregs of society. That won’t change anytime soon, but your role can make a difference. We need to encourage an open dialogue; particularly among those who don’t see eye-to-eye. Debate is healthy, but do your research before you engage and don’t let your ego get in the way of having a proper discussion—part of which is listening to the other party. If done correctly, you can avoid the hostility and create a space for problem-solving.

Some might argue that too much damage has been done. That salvaging its innocence is but a dream for the likes of Facebook. Only time will tell whether that’s truly the case, but in the meantime we can wise up to the absolute requirement to educate ourselves if we want a better, brighter, more inclusive future for us all.

Also by Kat: EPA Ignores Scientists’ Warning Of Neurotoxic Pesticide

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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