This essay aims to explore the effects tech-lobbying has had on the elections in the United States of America and ultimately how this influences the democracy on the country and its people. Media and telecommunications are big factors that are a part of the political economy of communication that has an effect on the democracy of the population of a country (Popiel, 2018). One of the underlying root problems that allow media elites to push their agenda is the increase in industry friendly legislation that ultimately helps the power of these companies soar without any proper effective restrictions or authorities with power to overlook such issues (Popiel, 2018). This form of power is closely related to soft power, where influence and persuasion over a person or population is gained without the use of coercion. The United States remains one of the few developed countries that support lobbying, which involves the collaboration of some public officials to support laws and policies that is in the best interest of the lobbyist clients which is usually in exchange for monetary benefits (Calabrese & Mihal, 2011). This essay will explore the funding surrounding the tech companies and the effects on the 2016 US election, both of which will help us better understand the role tech-lobbying has as the catalyst to a crippling American democracy.
The money involved in lobbying is one of the primary reasons why it is such an effective and powerful method in policy implementation. Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are considered the big 5 tech companies of the world and have spent millions of dollars in lobbying efforts (Polat, 2019). These companies have their political action committees deal with the heavy spending in this sector.
Visual representation of the number of lobbying reports and lobbying spending by the big 5 tech companies in the US, from 2005-2018, (Polat, 2019)
The figure above shows the trajectory the big 5 companies have followed with their spending over the years, which has been consistently increasing. This shows that the companies have increased their efforts to lobby for change and have started to prioritise it more and more. While each of these big five companies do not lobby for the same changes as they represent different interests, Facebook has most notably been associated with privacy and data security (Polat, 2019). The word “breach” has most notably been seen in the company’s lobbying reports with 19% of the reports (Polat, 2019).
According to Haenschen and Wolf (2019), Facebook and Google are the tech companies with the two largest shares of the online advertising industry. Facebook controls around 19.6% of this market and Google with around 37.2% (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019, p. 1). During the election campaign of 2008, only 22 million in dollars was spent on digital advertisements but this number increased to a whopping 1.4 billion dollars by the 2016 elections (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019).
Facebook and Google’s online advertising industry share
The Fight Against the FEC
Standard disclaimers requirements for political ads
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2010 explored the area of digital advertisements, which was challenged by Google and then later Facebook. Google argued that the FEC should not interfere with Google’s advertising policy and should not be forced to comply with the new rules of standard disclaimer requirements for political ads and rather find a middle ground where an alternative solution would be sufficient (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019. However, Facebook challenged the new regulations as well and argued that disclaimers should not be a requirement at all, which is what Google argued in the latter as well, which got passed (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019). It is evident in the research done by Haenschen and Wolf (2019) that both Facebook and Google’s requests for a total exemption of the new rules were politically and monetarily motivated.
Refusing to change their advertisement sizes
The FEC introduced policy making changes to the political advertisement sizes permitted on these platforms. Both Facebook and Google once again did not hesitate to fight this and argued that changing the size of the adverts would disrupt their business model and refused to do so (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019).
The failure of the FEC to regulate digital political ads is deeply connected to the political polarization of the country and its system. The votes for policy change mostly ended in a 3-3 split which resulted in either a denial or grant of the exemption, hence a deadlock, the republican members were seen to side with the business (lobbyists) and democrats sided with the public and their best interest (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019). Using this system of unregulated advertisements, foreign agents used digital ads to influence the 2016 US election and threw money on advertisements for the candidate they favored heavily (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019).
The Cambridge Analytica case study is an example of the scandal that highlights the data breach of 87 million Facebook users. Although Facebook does not accept direct responsibility for trading user data in this example, the data was used to target people and influence their voting preferences by using psychographically specific advertisements during the 2016 US elections (Hinds et al., 2020).
Other players and their role in the 2016 elections.
According to Kreiss and McGregor (2017) the control the elites and big tech companies have on data allow them to hinder and devalue our democracy. Facebook has been seen holding workshops and teaching conservative politicians how to use Facebook to reach new voters, while (Kreiss and McGregor, 2017). More explicit examples include, Google and Facebook staff members collaborating with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections that outlines the benefits and “potential for working with these technology firms” (Kreiss and McGregor, 2017, p. 156). These companies provide a platform for people to hold discussions and absorb information from, hence the algorithms are carefully created and catered to influence the visibility of content. Facebook heavily devalues conservative ideologies and suppresses the content from gaining traction on their platform (Kreiss and McGregor, 2017). Allowing foreign parties to advertise political posts is also a breach for America’s democracy and election as some speculated Russia interfered in the 2016 elections (Suzor, 2019).
Example of foreign intervention in US elections
We can argue that lobbying is still a better alternative compared to forms of corruption or bribery. Doing it in this manner helps strengthen relationships between legislators and the general public, as well as the existing institutions such as charities and labour unions are already represented by lobbyists (One Minute Economics, 2019).
Big tech companies and their lobbyist efforts have played a big part in the elections, it might not be the same in the future. The issue has gained a lot of traction especially after incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica. Stricter data-privacy rules are being implemented and in a recent example Google has been fined 170 million dollars by the Federal Trade Commission for harvesting personal data illegally (Fraser, 2020). The U.S Supreme Court is also investigating Google. These recent data breaches have led to way and opening to state-level consumer privacy laws, which could be a good thing if implemented properly, as bringing this decision to a state level from a national level can help certain states protect the data of their customers better, rather than having no choice at all (Fraser, 2020). It can also be argued that people are constantly being manipulated on a day-to-day basis, whether it is word of mouth or family upbringing, and social media has just provided a platform for people to express themselves more.
Similarly, a lack of regulation and content moderation can promote the wrong ideologies, one such example is when Cloudflare refused to host the Daily Stormer Nazi site on their platform (Suzor, 2019). Adding on, encountering political information on platforms such as Facebook, has raised user awareness about upcoming elections and social media has been proven to increase the overall voter turnout which may be beneficial to democracy (Haenschen, 2016).
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Haenschen, K. (2016). Social Pressure on Social Media: Using Facebook Status Updates to Increase Voter Turnout. Journal of Communication, 66(4), 542–563, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12236
Haenschen, K. & Wolf, J. (2019). Disclaiming responsibility: How platforms deadlocked the Federal Election Commission’s efforts to regulate digital political advertising. Telecommunications Policy, 43(18). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.telpol.2019.04.008
Hinds, J., Williams, E.J. & Joinson, A.N. (2020). It wouldn’t happen to me”: Privacy concerns and perspectives following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 143(n.d.). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2020.102498
Kreiss, D. & McGregor, S.C. (2018). Technology Firms Shape Political Communication: The Work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google With Campaigns During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle. Political Communication, 35(2), 155-177. 10.1080/10584609.2017.1364814
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