Buying political power through Facebook: Weapons-grade communication tactics to influence democratic elections, the new normal

Introduction

A Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” explores how a data company called Cambridge Analytica came to symbolize the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and its involvement with the Leave.EU campaign by the Brexit Party in the U.K. The power of social media companies such as Facebook and the abuse of its data by companies seems to be growing. As a consequence, Facebook recently created a Facebook Supreme Court. Apparently, Facebook must create their own mechanisms of self-regulation. One might even ask if social media companies now have the power of governance?1 This makes me wonder … where are our governments that should be promoting and protecting democratic principles? Yes, also on social media. In this article I will briefly examine the remarkable rise of Forum for Democracy (Fvd), a conservative, right-wing populist, Eurosceptic political party in The Netherlands. Throughout this article I will argue that FvD has most successfully bought their political power and influence through social media by running its lie machine most effective. This is problematic because these lie machines generate false explanations that seem to fit the facts, erode trust in institutions, and abuse the ability to shape behavior for profit or power based entirely on self-authorization with no democratic or moral legitimacy. Finally, this article concludes by stating that using weapons-grade communications tactics, such as micro targeting groups with political propaganda through social media in elections, has become the new normal. Even in a Western European democratic country like The Netherlands.

The rise of the lie machine(s)

FvD was founded in late 2016. The party first participated in 2017, winning their first two seats out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives. But in the 2019 provincial elections, FvD won the most number of seats. A staggering 86 seats out of 570 in total. What explains this success? It is their use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and their ability to exploit micro targeting better than other political parties. A quick analysis in a Facebook Ad Library data set clearly shows the numbers.2

I have filtered the data set on ads in The Netherlands and on descending order of amount spent. I have excluded campaigns that cost less than 5,000 Eur. FvD spent a significant amount more than Socialist Party (SP), the number two on the list. FvD spent almost 32 times more than Party for the Animals (PvdD). Leading up to the provincial elections in 2019, it is stated by insiders that approximately 2 million was expended on ads through social media, including Facebook.3

This is problematic because such micro targeting is basically political propaganda organized as lie machines. As Howard explains: “Lie machines are large, complex mechanisms made up of people, organizations, and social media algorithms that generate theories to fit a few facts, while leaving you with a crazy conclusion easily undermined by accurate information. By manipulating data (often illegitimately harvest, bought or stolen) and algorithms in the service of a political agenda, the best lie machines generate false explanations that seem to fit the facts”.4

Lie machines consists out of three main components:

  • Producer of lies that serve and ideology or the interests of political elites; the producer of lies in this case is the political party FvD itself.
  • Distributor of lies; the distributor of lies in this case is social media such as Facebook.
  • Marketer of political lies; the marketer of political lies concerns him or herself with the manipulating of the lies to an individual based on micro targeting.

This tailored political propaganda leads to the creation of lies with text, videos and images that is specifically targeted to a micro group based on privacy invading parameters that are somehow obtained by the marketer.5 By handing out all our data that contains our thoughts, emotions and preference for free to “connect with our friends and family”, Facebook is able to monetize this data as a commodity. This commodity is of high value for commercial organizations to sell their products or services. Recently, dictators in fragile states or political parties in democratic societies seem to tag along in their quest to retain or obtain power and influence. The lie machines no longer are participating in a public debate for different audiences against opponents with different views on societal issues that will challenge the ideology of a political party. Instead, the debate is now highly dispersed through several social media platforms. A level playing field for politicians to pitch their ideas to potential voters and defend their views on societal issues is become less important. Instead, the lie machine goes directly to their audience based on micro targeting. This is problematic for a democratic society. The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations is working on a new law for political parties to tackle his problem.6 The law will contain rules for financing a political party and how a party shall be organized and on top of that will it try to restrain uncontrolled digital campaigning such as micro targeting via social media platforms. Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” has this to say about such practices: “The power to shape behaviour for others’ profit or power is entirely self-authorising. It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy”.7

Conclusion

A final remark on buying political power through Facebook by gearing up sophisticated lie machines that occasionally cross ethical borders, relates to something even more obscure. Lie machines tactics employed such as Cambridge Analytica and FvD are not as innocent as they might seem at first sight. “So what they are using my personal data to micro target me with a personalized message?”. Well first of all, it is not an ad to buy toothpaste because you googled something or liked a certain Facebook page. It is about our democracy and its political parties to which we transfer our public voice to in order to represent our interests. Should we transfer our voice through this commercialization of personalized political ads based on a digital profile to the selection of our potential new Prime Minister? Secondly, the methodology used by lie machines via large data sets and micro targeting campaign ads with cleverly crafted different messages by the same political party is considered “a weapon, weapons-grade communications tactics, which means that we had to tell the British government if it was going to be deployed in another country outside the United Kingdom”8 Apparently, it has become the new normal to deploy such tactics on our own citizens and it is tolerated. Although more attention has been given to these practices with means to control the current unlimited and yet uncharted ground to win the “hearts and minds” of voters. By any means necessary, apparently.

12020. Kaye, David. JustSecurity. “The Republic of Facebook” accessed via https://www.justsecurity.org/70035/the-republic-of-facebook/

22020. Facebook. Ad Library accessed via https://facebook.com/ads/library

32020. Davidson, David & Rik Delhaas. VPRO, Argos. “Als de politiek in ieder oor een andere belofte fluistert” accessed via https://www.vpro.nl/argos/lees/nieuws/2020/microtargeting-in-Nederland.html

42020. Howard, Philip N. “Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives”. Chapter 1, p2.

52002. van de Ven, Coen. De Groene Amsterdammer. “Propaganda op maat” accessed via https://www.groene.nl/artikel/propaganda-op-maat

62002. van de Ven, Coen. De Groene Amsterdammer. “Propaganda op maat” accessed via https://www.groene.nl/artikel/propaganda-op-maat

72019. Nauhgton, John. The Guardian. “’The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism” accessed via https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook

82019. Dwilson, Stephanie Dube. Heavy “‘The Great Hack’: Cambridge Analytica’s Weapons-Grade Communication Tactics” accessed via https://heavy.com/entertainment/2019/07/weapons-grade-communication-cambridge-analytica/