Data driven social media campaigns have caused widespread concern in recent years for several reasons, from personalized targeting infringing individuals’ privacy to misinformation and the creation of propaganda bubbles. In Italy, new political elections are upcoming and a new season of political campaign has started. For this reason, the University of Perugia, Department of Political Science, together with Damian Tambini from the London School of Economics, decided to organize a workshop which intends to approach these issues in the realm of Italian elections.
Social media campaigns can be dominated by dark posts. A lack of transparency about finance, control and content of online messages can act to undermine existing electoral rules and the process of public deliberation and contestation of electoral messages.
Moreover, such online campaign messages can tackle the right to privacy: the use of big data for profiling potential voters can have implications for the effectiveness of data protection and consent regimes. In turn, campaign profiling can lead to propaganda bubbles: the use of ever more sophisticated profiling and audience segmentation techniques including psychometric profiling may lead to targeted propaganda and ‘undue influence’ on voters. Finally, profiling may result in redlining. Namely, targeting of electoral communication addresses ever-narrower ‘target’ groups of swing voters and constituencies, resulting in the corresponding exclusion of others from processes of democratic debate.
Data driven social media campaigns also raise questions such as misinformation and the spread of fake news. The combination of profiling and targeting of stories that reinforce existing behavioural and opinion biases, with a lower regard for whether those stories are true or not, appears to lead to dangers of misinformation, some of it deliberate, during electoral processes.
Finally, there is a question of dominance of one social media platform over the others, particularly of Facebook. The above mentioned processes would be less concerning if citizens were more easily able to switch between platforms, but Facebook in particular is becoming a one stop shop for campaigns wishing to build and profile audiences, and target messages to them, which undermines competitive processes and also raises concerns about the role of opaque foreign companies.
Despite these processes, which together raise questions about whether social media may undermine the legitimacy of elections, relatively little is known about the practices involved in online campaigning.
During recent elections in the UK, France, Germany and Austria, among other countries, academic researchers and civil society campaigners have developed a number of innovative projects to monitor these new developments in campaigning, and create repositories of advertising that enable citizens, academics and civil society groups to research and record the content and processes that are actually involved in social media campaigns.
The workshop hold by the University of Perugia will bring together experts from Italy and other countries that have been experiencing targeting during social media election campaigns: academic and civil society experts will share research and expertise on social media and elections and build awareness and links about methods of analysis of targeted social media campaigns. The workshop will have a “comparative” approach, enabling participants to have a clearer idea on how data driven campaigns are actually conducted in different social and political contexts, which the main actors in the different countries are and which the main specific methods of targeting.