Democratic Data

Two people holding their phones

It’s almost impossible to avoid being on social media. I receive updates from my school, friends, family, and organizations I’m involved in through social media. I’ve tried to take breaks, but the fear of missing out on something gravely important, like a friend forwarding a reel, keeps me habitually checking notifications. With increased usage of social media comes the collection of vast amounts of personal data on every user. We’ve grown accustomed to sharing more of our lives than others would ordinarily see, and with that comes the natural concern for personal privacy. But what we share can be used on a larger scale to analyze information about our personality, voting habits, and personal beliefs, and target us with ads and posts aimed to sway our political leanings. Can data then be used fairly within a democracy, if it can also be used to manipulate voters?

Data reveals who we are. It can predict how we will behave, what we believe in, who we will vote for. It is a given that our online data is being shared, from the moment we agree to privacy policies. There is little we can do to mitigate this personal privacy breach other than opting out of the odd cookie or choosing to stay off of social media. Unfortunately, the latter option is impossible for those who receive updates from their schools, workplaces, friends and family, and public services from social media feeds. Data use is now an unavoidable part of democracy, but not a wholly negative one. Political parties can use data to learn the needs of their voters to determine which issues to focus on in their campaign, lending publicity to important issues (Hankey et al., 2018). Though social media is widely cited as negatively affecting democracy, it cannot be said that it is a universally poor resource for information. Social media invites people who would not usually have a platform to participate visibly in social and political issues. But this can be explored too; our behaviour is influenced by that of others. If we can see how many people support an issue, we are more likely to become involved (Margetts, 2018).

This is not a new part of democracy. Advertisers and politicians alike market to certain demographics with messages that invoke a reaction based on personal experience. The difference is the scale of information available for use in political campaigns and the detailed profiles that can be created for each voter (Hankey et al,. 2018). If politicians build social media campaigns using thousands of data points to identify statements that may sway voters, the information being spread is likely false or only partly honest (Amer & Noujaim, 2019). Rather than being a true reflection of their ideas and goals, their platform becomes untrustworthy. A candidate may authentically intend to curb carbon emissions, but a quotable statement on environmentalism will also draw the attention of left-leaning voters who are on the fence. This creates a political process that is closer to a popularity contest than a democratic election, visible in the personal insults levied at political candidates based on their appearance, age, and gender, rather than their political platform and qualifications. 

The 2019 documentary The Great Hack features Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting company that processed data points on American voters to determine who could be persuaded through targeted ads to vote for the Republican party. Their involvement in the campaign led many to wonder who can rightfully view and use personal data. Is it still democratic to intentionally influence voters with the aid of data that can identify each person’s personality, personal connections, personal history, and political opinions? Even if the voter alone is responsible for what they put on their ballot?  

Political campaigns increasingly rely on social media to directly address voters, as opposed to using mediums like news outlets that require intermediaries (Sahly A. et al, 2019). With that freedom to discuss their platforms, politicians may stretch the boundaries of a democratic election by discouraging respectful and productive debate. In the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump was known for using conspiracy theories and false information circulated by extremist groups to demean fellow politicians and incite anger among his supporters (Marwick, A. & Lewis, R., 2017). This reads like a description of a soon-to-be authoritarian, rather than a candidate for presidency in a democratic country. With inflammatory statements, political issues can quickly become a collection of misinformation and disinformation that, coupled with strong loyalty to either the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, create a prime environment for uninformed and emotional voting. People under a democracy should make freely formed decisions. If social media were truly democratic, its main function would not be profit. Social media companies need to make money from freely downloadable apps. Advertisement and the sale of data are the main sources of income for these corporations, which means users are the product (Mod, 2017). Advertisers buy data to determine effective marketing strategies to target specific audiences. Even more invasive and morally questionable are the political campaigns that collect data on voters, with the aim of gaining their support. A democracy by definition is a system that is governed by and for the people. With data gathered from social media used to purposefully aggravate or polarize, democratic elections become akin to marketing campaigns. As social media is now inextricable from democracy, it will need to be considered as such, and regulated to prevent extremism and manipulation.

Works Cited:

Amer, K. & Noujaim, J. (Directors). (2019). The Great Hack [Film]. Netflix & The Othrs.

Hankey, S., Morrison, J., & Naik, R. (2018). (rep.). Data and Democracy in the Digital Age

Margetts, H. (2018). Rethinking democracy with social media. Political Quarterly90(S1).

Marwick, A., & Lewis, R. (2017). (rep.). Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online

Mod, C. (2017, January 13). How I Got My Attention Back. Wired. Retrieved from 

Sahly, A., Shao, C., & Kwon, K. H. (2019). Social Media for Political Campaigns: An Examination of Trump’s and Clinton’s Frame Building and Its Effect on Audience Engagement. Social Media + Society, 5(2).

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