How we vote

- is social media a threat to the democratic elections?

Bartosz Kołodziejczyk, University of Warsaw Graduate, Wirtualna Polska

Can social media be a threat to democratic elections? Sure. However, many factors play their part in that process. The affordances of platforms such as Facebook or Twitter and the opportunities offered by them to the political parties are immense.

However, firstly, it is necessary to focus on what social media and political communication actually are in order to answer the question the title of this article. These two definitions will enable us to understand the electoral process itself and the associated risk in the age of the internet. ‘Political communication’ will be used in regard to a process of interaction between a voter and a politician. It may be direct or indirect, where the indirect communication is imposed by mass media. However, for us as the voters, the most important part is ‘network communication’ characterized by its ‘speed’. The political message is addressed to a citizen, who can immediately react and respond directly to the sender of the message.

The process of network communication involves primarily social media that are the communication channel between a politician and an internet user – the voter. Social media can be therefore defined as tools used by the politicians to improve their dialogue with their potential electorate by creating seemingly interactive communication practices with the use the mass media.

Social media’s influence on voters

Let’s start with databases upon which all social platforms depend. We actively provide information ourselves that then are being categorized by various forms of digital surveillance, and which in the end can be used by politicians to smuggle in content that allegedly matches our political preferences. It is not about “obvious” data such as age or place of residence. The actual struggle is for every single „like” and „share”, and every profile we follow – and not necessarily political.

Are you against abortion and interested in religious matters? Have you ever noticed a frequently appearing ad for a local branch of a party on your wall, encouraging you to familiarize yourself with their programme? In just a few clicks, the system will assign your preferences to a particular category. It is through capturing data and categorization how Cambridge Analytica works. The very same company that helped the Republicans with the 2016 US presidential elections and which worked for the Leave. EU campaign by collecting data on voters through a profiling system using general online data, Facebook likes and smartphone data to then use it for “behavioural microtargeting”. The one that closed operations in 2018 as a result of the data scandal. And which algorithms are said to allegedly help run Andrzej Duda’s presidential campaign in 2015.

Let’s look at it from a more microscale perspective of a “smaller” player. Do you allow Facebook to access your location? Great! A local politician can easily buy an advertisement (profile) on the walls of all the inhabitants of his town. If he’s the only one who came up with the idea of using geolocation well... you’ll be condemned to him during the campaign period. Such an aggressive action is particularly dangerous for people who have knowledge of politics that is only from social media, because of the “algorithmic identities” and “behaviour modification” based on the data categorization, we are locked up in our “ideological” bubbles.

Tinder and games in danger too?

Polish politicians also learn how to use social media to have the possibly biggest gain from it. The current campaign is a perfect example of this. Two potentially alarming situations for voters - the first one concerns the popular dating app Tinder, which has been used for campaign purposes of Paweł Wojda, a Civil Platform candidate. His campaign poster and a bio that says he invites you for a date on 13th October (the day of the parliamentary elections). The original way, clear message, reaching young women. Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for the Congress, used a similar idea in 2018.

The second example, that can immediately remind of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, is the use of an online game for campaign purposes. Obama posted his banners in Need for Speed: Carbon, while Polish left-wing candidate, Kacper Parol, used Minecraft. Ingenious? Nevertheless, undoubtedly an interesting way to reach the young electorate.

Fake news. A powerful weapon.

False information is an equally, if not more, dangerous tool for spreading online propaganda. The WikiLeaks affair, #Pizzagate and CNN revelations about Anthony Scaramucci are just some examples from 2016 US presidential campaign. Although the official investigations don’t point directly to the impact of fake news on the elections result, the topics raised have undoubtedly had a resounding effect not only in the United States but also internationally.

But is there any fake news in Poland? When Donald Trump came to Poland in 2017, the famous photo from Krasinski Square in Warsaw was supposed to discredit Agata Kornhauser-Duda. The polish media reported that the First Lady did not shake hands with Trump. Nevertheless, it also became internationally famous as a gif.

This year, one of the most interesting news turned out to be a meeting with voters in Lower Silesia. Jarosław Gowin, the Minister of Science and Higher Education, posted pictures on his Twitter from speeches by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the leader of Civil Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna. „The same city and a slightly different mobilization... Wrocław meeting @MorawieckiM and Grzegorz Schetyna” - wrote Deputy Prime Minister Gowin along with a comparison of two photos where on one smiling Morawiecki is tightly surrounded by his supporters, while the second one of Schetyna was taken from a distance showing only a few people.

The minister’s entry was supposed to suggest that both speeches took place in Wrocław, while the truth turned out to be quite different. The photo depicting Morawiecki was taken during a campaign meeting in Zabkowice Slaskie, while the leader of the Civil Platform was photographed in Swidnice during a press conference. The difference is fundamental, and such a combination may affect the perception of a candidate in the region.

Are social media a threat to democratic elections?

Only a few factors indicating possible threats the social media use for political purposes in Poland were mentioned here. But are they that dangerous? Can they in fact affect the election results? There is no concrete answer to this question. Social media now provide powerful tools that political headquarters can use to reach the voters. The polls results of Law and Justice testify to the understanding of those mechanisms.

Each of factors can be a threat to democratic elections. However, according to Allcott and Gentzkow, these factors don’t pose a threat on their own. Their effects will be felt by the voters. However, I would be more concerned about the impact of a combination of these influences. What will happen when we apply geolocation, profile and preferences categorization and finally be able to effectively draw it away from our rival by disinformation and undermining his authority?

Fortunately, we can say that all “Cambridge Analytica” type of scandal is happening somewhere far away as Poland hasn’t reached that stage. Yet.