Written by Tom Jennings
The encroachment of technology into our democratic processes has long been a cause of significant and heated debate.
With social media being under more scrutiny than ever, the role the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat play in elections has become a key focus point in this ongoing debate.
As usual, it is Facebook that finds itself closest to scandal.
The website, Mainstream Network, has used Facebook to promote a Pro-Brexit message, spending over £250,000 this year in the process.
With the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, one would assume Facebook would keen to verify those spending significant amounts of money through its’ platform to promote their message according to the data generated by Facebook’s users.
However, we are still none the wiser as to who is behind Mainstream Network, and how they are generating the money to run such an extensive ad campaign.
This is sadly typical of Facebook’s recent failings, as they continue to seem overly profit centric, forgetting the very real responsibilities that come with hosting such a massive platform.
However, there are some in the social media world which take this responsibility seriously, and actively work to better engagement in democracy, rather than exploiting it for financial gain.
Snapchat have done some fantastic work around voter registration, helping over 400,000 users register to vote in key battle ground states such as Florida and Georgia ahead of the upcoming US Midterms.
By engaging with young people where they are, rather than waiting for politics to come to them, Snapchat is actively promoting engagement in the democratic process, and helping enfranchise a new generation of voters who politicians may otherwise have ignored.
Of course, registering to vote is only one part of the process.
Thankfully, both Lyft and Uber offered to promotional discounts to ensure registered voters could actually got to the polls, after a study showed 16million people cited transportation as their primary barrier to voting.
These midterms also showed the power of the presidential twitter feed.
Whether it be crying fake news at any criticism thrown his way or showing frank disregard for facts when it comes to due process and election law in key states like Florida, the impacts of Trump’s twitter tirades was felt everywhere.
Far from showing the grace and decorum of the oval office, Trump’s tweets are influencing everything from voter confidence down to the stock market, and what may seem to some like off the cuff remarks on social media are having a substantial impact in the real world.
Reason perhaps why one social media app found itself trying to defend a fragile democracy from another popularist.
WhatsApp, who somewhat ironically are owned by Facebook, have actually been another responsible actor in the industry, banning 100,000 accounts before the recent Brazilian elections.
Far right and ultimately successful candidate Jair Bolsonaro attempted to use the messaging platform to attempt to flood voters with propaganda messages in the run up to polling day.
Even though Bolsonaro went on to win, WhatsApp made a bold statement by taking such a firm stance on the misuse of its platform.
What all of these events show us is that social media can and often is a positive rather than negative force on our democracy.
When major platforms consider their responsibility to their users, they can be a real force for good, and be catalysts for change.
Sadly, some in the industry renege on this responsibility, choosing instead to profit from our democratic processes. As long as this continues, social media will continue to be exploited by those intent on subverting and stifling democracy.