Controversy sparked by social media
Social media platforms have evolved into virtual spaces for political discourse. Politicians, diplomats, and political organisations utilise these platforms to directly interact with the public, convey messages, and shape narratives (Marwala, 2023). People are able to express their viewpoints on social media, which recognises their right to freedom of speech and allows them to freely express their opinions, whether they are political perspectives, social issues, or personal insights. As an important channel for information dissemination, social media makes it easier for information to spread globally. However, as social media has matured, a series of issues have emerged. These digital spaces have raised concerns such as the spread of misinformation and propaganda, which can alter public opinion and exacerbate conflicts.
Critics argue that social media platforms have exerted significant influence in shaping and guiding public opinion, thereby impacting freedom of speech and fairness in public debates. However, opposing views emphasize that social media provides a platform for political participation, creating opportunities for more people to engage in political discussions and actions. (Theocharis et al., 2022) This openness and accessibility help drive the democratic process, making it easier for citizens to access political information, express their views, and actively participate in elections and political activities. This viewpoint argues that the existence of social media provides the public with more opportunities for voice and expression, thus promoting political diversity and inclusivity. However, in reality, politicians utilize social media platforms for their campaigns and to attract people’s participation, greatly influencing political dynamics. ((Marwala, 2023) The idealized freedom of speech on social platforms is undermined due to the misuse of private data.
Cambridge Analytica utilized Facebook data to influence the US presidential elections.
Social media is currently an unregulated technological platform, which provides opportunities for various disruptors to steal information and engage in secretive communication. It raises significant concerns about privacy and social harmony (McCay-Peet & Quan-Haase, 2017). Political parties in different countries utilize social media to promote their political agendas and instill ideological beliefs, aiming to garner support. This form of political mobilization can be a powerful tool for political elites to facilitate national political progress, but at the same time, it can also pose a threat to political security.
Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company headquartered in the UK, was involved in using private data from Facebook to target advertising, directly influencing the presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in 2016. The company, founded in 2013, utilized extensive data collection and analysis to predict and manipulate people’s political opinions and decisions. Cambridge Analytica utilized an application called “This Is Your Digital Life” to collect personal data from millions of Facebook users, who may not have been aware that their data would be used for political purposes. During the US election, Cambridge Analytica, hired by Trump, used the vast amount of data obtained from Facebook to create detailed personal profiles for targeted political advertising. These advertisements were sent to the audience’s private Facebook interface at specific times and disappeared within a few hours. The intention was to convey negative information about Trump’s election competitors and manipulate voters to vote for Trump. This digital attack helped Trump secure 77,000 votes in three key states and ultimately led to his victory (Ikhlaq ur Rehman, 2019).
Furthermore, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook users’ private data to interfere with political activities in various countries, such as Europe and Kenya. （BBC News，2018）This misuse of social media data obstructed the freedom of expression of the public, posing a threat to their freedom of speech (Isaak & Hanna, 2018). Social media was initially seen as a platform to facilitate open debates and diverse exchanges of viewpoints. However, the actions of Cambridge Analytica have turned social media into a tool for manipulation, used to disseminate targeted information in order to alter people’s political behavior. Incidents like these have sparked a crisis of trust in social media platforms, causing people to question whether these platforms can properly protect user data and uphold freedom of speech. Media platforms like Facebook, with their excessive interference in political activities, have exceeded reasonable bounds. Instead of granting people freedom of speech, they suppress their genuine thoughts and opinions.
The Filter Bubble of Facebook: A Misguided Audience
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An opposing viewpoint argues that media platforms like Facebook provide a viable platform to promote more people’s participation in political activities and express their true thoughts. Social media platforms provide channels for political information and viewpoints, and Facebook’s content rules do allow for public participation in political activities and have a high tolerance for content moderation rules. However, the information on Facebook is not completely fair and accurate. Some organizations deliberately publish misleading information with the intention of placing the audience in a filter bubble, attempting to change their true perspectives. The formation of a filter bubble occurs because on platforms like Facebook, the audience is only presented with information that aligns with their existing interests, viewpoints, and preferences, while information that does not align is filtered out or rarely appears. This situation may lead users to be trapped in an information “bubble,” only seeing and hearing voices and viewpoints that align with their own, and not easily exposed to diversity and opposing opinions.
According to research, it has been shown that Facebook tends to connect users with information that aligns with their viewpoints, creating what is known as a filter bubble (Garrett, 2016). Audiences are intentionally guided when they are unable to distinguish the truthfulness of the information, which can lead to citizens being confined to a limited range of information and unable to access diverse perspectives and facts, thus limiting their ability to express their opinions. This practice by Facebook blinds citizens to their self-awareness, as they are restricted to a specific range of information, making it difficult for them to see different viewpoints and limiting their thinking, which in turn limits their ability to express themselves and obtain a wide range of information and diverse perspectives to support their decisions and viewpoints. This weakens citizens’ engagement in political debates. Therefore, the viewpoint that social media allows citizens to better express their true intentions is not valid.
Based on the aforementioned points, Facebook, instead of assisting citizens in exercising their freedom of speech, has become a tool for politicians. It uses Facebook’s data to shape public awareness and limit people’s exposure to diverse perspectives. This behavior has directly impacted user privacy and freedom of speech in political activities. The role of social media needs to be carefully examined and regulated to ensure the maintenance of freedom of speech and fairness, while allowing for broader political participation. It is important to protect one user from the infringement of another user or to protect a group from the infringement of their opponents, while also eliminating offensive, despicable, or illegal behavior and presenting new users with their best aspects to protect their interests. (Gillespie, 2018)
Australia sues Facebook over Cambridge Analytica. (2020, March 9). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-51799738
Facebook’s personal Data misused? The global impact of Cambridge Analytica. (2018, March 21). BBC News . https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/trad/world-43482767
Garrett, R. K. (2016, November 17). Facebook’s problem is more complicated than fake news. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/facebooks-problem-is-more-complicated-than-fake-news-68886#:~:text=The%20popular%20claim%20that%20%E2%80%9Cfilter%20bubbles%E2%80%9D%20are%20why
Gillespie, T. (2018). All Platforms Moderate. In Custodians of the Internet : Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media (pp. 1–23). Yale University Press.
Ikhlaq ur Rehman. (2019). Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data harvesting: What you need to know. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libphilprac/2497/
Isaak, J., & Hanna, M. J. (2018). User Data Privacy: Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Privacy Protection. Computer, 51(8), 56–59. https://doi.org/10.1109/mc.2018.3191268
Marwala, T. (2023). Social Media in Politics. In: Artificial Intelligence, Game Theory and Mechanism Design in Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-99-5103-1_10
Theocharis, Y., Boulianne, S., Koc-Michalska, K., & Bimber, B. (2022). Platform affordances and political participation: how social media reshape political engagement. West European Politics, 46(4), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2022.2087410