WCC Election 2019: Social Media: Bullying and Election Interference Dangers

How could the Council elections later this year be adversely manipulated using social media platforms? I look at the issue which is being globally labelled as a threat to the democratic process.

Allegations of political interference through the exploitation of social media are a common occurrence in the media. The most famous of which is the Russian participation in the last United States elections, however, it is also being cited as a factor in other national elections.

The issue is complex, so I want to boil it down to three problematic areas. The first is how social media can be used to break electoral laws and rules without fear of reprisal. The second is fake news. The last is the organisation of bullying attacks against candidates.

Facebook will not release the amount of money that is spent on a promotion, or advert, on their platform. Under New Zealand electoral rules there are limits of money that can be spent on a campaign and advertising has laws to ensure that transparency is maintained through the process.

If I were a candidate of dubious moral persuasion, I could fund an advertising campaign with as much cash I wanted to understanding that there is no way to track that funding. I could spend an unlimited amount of cash flooding local users with my political branding.

If I wanted to be cautious, I could get someone else to do that for me, rather than taking on a donor directly, in a transparent way, I could ask them to run promotions on my behalf, further distancing myself from any electoral breach.

As we know, the tools that allow us to target people are powerful. For example, if I wanted to attack candidates over their Shelly Bay stance, I could create an audience of a certain age, that lived near that area, who had a political leaning toward the Greens, or were conservationists, and are readers of Dominion Post, and follow Peter Jackson. You can be that specific.

As an interesting note, that profile has a potential audience target of around 92,000 people when you don’t put a limit on age.

I could then create a simple poster outlying the candidates who voted for the development of Shelly Bay and the perceived dangers of such a development. I could list candidates that oppose the development as ask you to vote for them instead.

I could spend $250,000 on that, and you’d never know, nor would you ever know who I am.

It wouldn’t even matter if, in that example, the “facts” I gave you were true or not. I could outright lie about what the candidates who supported the development were gaining from such an arrangement. I could provide misinformation about the environmental impact. There is no ability to filter out fake news and lies from the platform.

It’s this ability that is causing great consternation around the world because it undermines the very electoral process which is designed to engineer transparency and trust in the system while ensuring that truth does not become a victim.

It could also be used to severely damage a candidate’s chances at election. Imagine I impersonate a candidate and put out a promotion that is extremely contentious or flat out racist, making it as if it were their own. People do not take the time to read into anything; they trust the platform is delivering the truth, and react quickly. The damage is instantly done.

The second area where social media platforms are dangerous is where we see bullying, threats, and the “social media pile on”, where dozens of users react to other users posts to shut them down.

Twitter is famous for this, and even their CEO admits that there is a mob mentality that frequently arises with the platform on the back of “outrage.” This often is coupled with abuse, threats, bullying, and other attacks such as “doxing”, which is when you release personal details of the person who made the original post.

Often, particularly during elections, these pile on events are orchestrated by candidates and their supporters deliberately to generate publicity. Teams of social media users with multiple accounts will start the pile on deliberately in order to discredit the candidate while raising the profile of the person they support.

It is insidious, dangerous, dishonourable, unacceptable, and common.

For this election, I’ve bought a service that tries to untangle some of those pile on events. It effectively does that a human can’t, by tracing them to their point of origin, which often reveals the party or persons that started the event. However, as I have noted above, those origin points can be cleverly hidden.

I am hoping that we don’t see these kinds of “dirty politics” tactics as we go through the election process; however, we can see some evidence of the bullying at least, though it appears disorganised, already starting to occur.

Over the last week, it has been playing out around the Shelly Bay issue and the proposed parking price increase policy that is coming up. The fur is flying, and the facts are often incorrect. Existing politicians are not only being targeted by online bullies, but some are displaying their glass jaw, reacting to not only each other but the agitators in some less than professional ways.

Social media is a powerful platform for a candidate, but as we have noted before, it can be a terrible two edge sword.