By Hiram de la Peña Celaya
The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the subsequent media attention this story received was a huge shocker for users and non-users of sites such as Facebook. The massive retrieval of data was seen for the first time in its real proportions, as were the sophisticated methods of advertising used inside political campaigns. Once again, topics like the invasion of privacy and erosion of free will were brought starkly into focus. However, the experts on these issues are generally from research centers in America or Europe; this represents a form of bias in the academic work available on these matters that has too rarely been acknowledged. The basic notions and events that shape expert opinions about the phenomena are the ones seen in these rich countries.
The rise of populism across nations is bringing new forms of political and social organization. Left and Right-wing populist movements have been excluded from traditional media due to a series of factors; in essence, this is related to a centre oriented narrative exploited by TV broadcasters, but social media proves itself as a powerful tool to reach out to targeted audiences in effective and subtle ways. Wealthy nations have cases where big companies and data brokers are implicated in political scandals. In countries like Mexico, the problem is considerably different. Political parties and social actors have limited budgets in comparison to organizations like the Republican Party in the United States. Political campaigns must be cost-effective above all else. This has important implications for the use of social media in politics.
A good example is the case of young people working for politicians in small offices across Mexico City. Their work encompasses all kinds of fake news and memes to fuel virtual discussion on selected topics. They use social media to achieve these goals, especially Twitter and Facebook. All of this sounds like an argument for a mockumentary on the data industry and social media. In fact, Buzzfeed released a mini-documentary in June of 2018. The host, Ryan Broderick, shows actual footage of these little offices. Rudimentary but practical, improvised but surprisingly organized. Carlos Merlo coordinates the work of hundreds of millennials; the most important things at the offices, as described by Merlo, are the computers and the young workers. Approximately 17 offices are the headquarters of more than 4,000 fake news sites. In the Mexican context, there is not a clear regulation on internet crimes, and public policies on these topics are still incipient. The political impact of social media campaigns and the widespread of fake news to manipulate public opinion it’s a reality in every country connected to the web.
Here, levels of web literacy are also important to take into consideration. I would like to compare the performance of reading in the PISA test of 2015, as well as the results of the same test regarding collaborative problem-solving. Mexican and UK students register significant differences in terms of these abilities. First, in the performance test of reading comprehension, young Mexican students are ranked in the 50th place out of 69 country members of the OECD; the UK in on the 22nd place. The vast majority of the teen Mexicans who took the test were contained in the OECD level 2 of reading proficiency; this level is the third lowest (there are 7 levels, but level 1 is divided in 1a and 1b) and only requires readers to make small inferences of texts as well as recognizing the main ideas of them. Additionally, for collaborative problem-solving skills, Mexico is on the bottom 10 countries out of 52 and way below the OECD average.
This issue points to the fundamental abilities a citizen should acquire to participate consciously in the construction of a healthy democracy. Or at least a functional and pluralist one. We, as sociologists, and politicians, face a virtual environment where fake news and individually targeted propaganda attacks generate polarization, producing a threat to the core values of democracy. In 2005, a study was conducted where it was found that only fifteen minutes of discussion is needed between people with shared points of view to make their opinions at the end of deliberation on different issues turn out to be more extreme than it was initially, both at the individual and collective level. The experiment included discussions around the main public debates that trace the line between conservatives and liberals; as we showed, both groups came out of the exercise with reinforced and intensified visions. This pattern of behavior identified in the experiment, with features of social psychology and political science, has been repeated in a dozen different countries.
The single concept of internet regulation is often described as fascist or authoritarian, and of course, the tension between security and liberty remains relevant. Nonetheless, it is essential to consider whether we have reached a point where social media have been used and will continue to be used as a silent weapon to influence our behavior. I see no problem when the use of personal data works to offer perfectly tailored goods like movies, books, and so on. But when data manipulation reaches the political arena it is a whole other story. Then, countries like Mexico bear the brunt of these new forms of propaganda: their populations are not prepared at all to take on the dirty campaigns full of lies and misinformation. There are relevant studies which acknowledge the different systems of communications and media in various countries, some of them more or less state-controlled than the others, but the idea here is to follow a path where the individual impact of social media on society could be understood taking into account the knowledge people have of the functioning of the web. Knowing the dynamics of the internet has become imperative for the 21st century.
Hiram de la Peña is a BA in sociology. He is an external associate at the Social Research Institute, Autonomous University of Baja California. He also teaches Universal History and Research Methodology. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Originally posted 27th August 2018