Are voters free-acting agents, responsible for their own choices? Or are they mere sheep, blindly following whatever advertising gimmick has been put before them?
To me, this is the most fascinating and largely ignored question that has arisen from the Russian hacker and Facebook algorithm meltdown over the last year. If it weren’t for all the fake news, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president they say. If fewer memes circulated on Facebook, there’d be no Brexit.
The idea that things would have turned out differently is a tantalizing theory as those in the centre and on the left still try to grasp exactly why the two votes ended in their eventual outcomes. Unable to fathom any other explanation, people must have voted the way they did because of conniving hackers hell-bent on disrupting democracy. Had voters had a clear mind and enough restraint, everyone would be singing kumbaya right now instead of snickering at the thought of Stormy Daniels spanking the president with a TRUMP Magazine.
There’s no denying that Russian meddling did occur, and that the vast reach of Facebook’s tentacles did affect voters. The question is rather how much influence it really had and is it any different from the other types of meddling – also called marketing in any other contexts – that takes place on a daily basis. When examining the facts, it all seems overblown.
The current McCarthyistic grilling of Mark Zuckerberg is the most perplexing to me, simply because the privacy issues associated with social media have been known for so long. Over two billion people have consensually signed up to Facebook and login monthly, willingly divulging some of their most personal information to the world. As a publicly traded company with a free product, it’s also known that Facebook’s value comes from advertising. This is obvious to everyone who has surfed on Amazon, only to see their wish list pop up everywhere on Facebook or Google. It’s a tradeoff we make as consumers. Targeted ads are also incredibly accurate – a pro-Trump message is unlikely to be earmarked for a Clinton-supporter’s feed. Because of this, they reinforce and solidify existing beliefs rather than indoctrinate.
The same tactics now under scrutiny were also used by the Obama campaign in 2012. According to the Washington Post, the Obama campaign “built a database of every American voter using the same Facebook developer tool used by Cambridge [Analytica]”, allowing them to “chart the closeness of people’s relationships and make estimates about which people would be most likely to influence other people in their network to vote.”
Even the precision made possible by social media isn’t new. The Obama campaign in 2008 had one of the most sophisticated microtargeting strategies ever used in politics, using everything from magazine subscriptions to the permits a person hold to build a picture of who they are and how they should be targeted. The metadata generated by Facebook and the bits and pieces of data we leave around in our analog lives are not so different.
Voters can also be influenced by the most dubious stimuli. Several studies have shown that the location of a polling station can influence votes. In one study, voters who cast their ballots in a school environment were more likely to support school funding initiatives. The effects were minor, but still significant given the implications.
This brings us back to the original question: do we have free will? Democracy is dependent on the answer being yes. Every individual is free to absorb information and stimuli and make their own rational decisions about who to vote for. If free will were a myth, so would be democracy.
But the truth is messier than that. People take logical shortcuts to come to their decisions in all aspects of life, and influencers try to harness that. People have free will, even if their decisions aren’t always rational. This isn’t right or wrong, it just is – and always has been. Governments can pretend they’re taking meaningful action by regulating Facebook, but they won’t succeed in changing human nature.
Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.