Exploiting Data Breaches: Political Campaigns and Platform Regulations in the Digital Era

"Social Media For Change, Social Change & Politics" by giulia.forsythe is marked with CC0 1.0.

With the number of social media users showing rapid growth, and social media increasingly being used by citizens and political organizations in the political environment, and from the perspective of political organizations, it is important to actively participate in social media based political communication (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013). Social media plays an important role in political campaigns by allowing politicians to interact with the public and analyse the impact of the campaign, meanwhile, for users, social media provides the ideal platform allowing users to engage in political discussions and distribute political views.

Scripps News (2018)

How do the political campaigns take advantage of data breaches in platforms?

Social media platforms allow for interactive campaigning, where voters can directly participate in campaigns, provide feedback, and engage in discussions, which helps to shape campaign strategies and understand public sentiment. However, in this situation, it also makes political organization concerned about what people think, which leads them to understand the needs of their target audience and to reach out to potential target groups.

Therefore, targeted advertising plays an important role in political campaigns, using data to individually deliver political adverts to potential voters. It involves collecting information about individuals and using that information to show them targeted political adverts. The goal is to create a fit between the citizen and the message, aiming to maximise the impact of their campaigns by attracting the right audience through tailored messages (Hirsch et al., 2023). Targeted adverts can effectively address specific issues, concerns or preferences that resonate with the target audience and optimise their messaging based on audience response, ensuring that the content is compelling and resonates effectively with the target audience.

Political organizations can collect and analyse large amounts of data from social media platforms, which can help to create and deliver highly customised and targeted campaigns for their target audience. However, targeted political advertising based on personal data may leave voters vulnerable to manipulation, misinformation, as well as data breaches.

Data Breach” by EpicTop10.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“The unauthorised acquisition of millions of Facebook personal details from US voters by Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm linked to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, constitutes one of Facebook’s major data breaches. The data collected was used to develop a software program that could predict and influence voters’ choices through personalised political advertising. The information was obtained through an app called “Thisisyourdigitallife,” which collected data not only from users but also from their Facebook friends, creating a massive pool of data. Although Facebook recognised the breach in late 2015, they did not immediately notify users or take appropriate measures to protect the data.”

(Graham-Harrison & Cadwalladr, 2018)
The New York Times (2018).

While the data breach helped the Trump team during the political campaign, the data breach damaged Facebook’s reputation and users may lose confidence in the platform’s ability to protect their data, leading to a decline in user base, and brand trust. Given that Facebook discovered the data breach in 2015 without notifying users, it is evident that there are gaps in the regulation of online platforms. This highlights the urgent need to raise awareness of cybersecurity, prompting users and platforms to implement stricter security measures and exercise caution when sharing data, ultimately creating a safer online environment.

Platform Regulations

When users entrust their personal data to a platform, they expect the platform to handle it responsibly and securely. Breaches violate this trust and lead to a loss of confidence in the platform. Besides that, data breaches can damage a platform’s brand reputation. The negative publicity caused by a breach can last a long time it has raised public concerns about the operation of social media platforms and political organisations, which in turn may reduce public participation and discussion of political events on social media.

Therefore, platforms require regulation of data breaches. Regulation of online platforms is mainly carried out by technology companies, which censor published content and create rules that users must follow when using the platforms, which often include guidelines on appropriate behaviour, permissible types of content and penalties for non-compliance, as well as by governments, which have laws that provide for greater protection of user data and privacy. This is because these technology companies are key control points that can greatly influence user behaviour, stakeholders, including governments, users, private entities, and civil society, are increasingly learning to regulate user behaviour indirectly by placing demands on these intermediaries (Flew et al., 2019). Stakeholders shape the environments in which users operate, indirectly guiding how they interact and behave on these platforms.

However, ambiguity arises due to the complexity of social media regulation and the ever-changing global regulations. Some social media platforms are aware of these regulatory loopholes, and they can take advantage of the lack of precise definitions or guidelines to interpret and implement the rules in a way that suits their interests. Even when platforms have come under public scrutiny and legal investigations for data breaches, and political interference, these investigations have resulted in relatively small fines compared to the size of these companies. These platform companies have deliberately used the appearance of decentralisation to mask centralised power and span multiple industries, leading to confusion about their competitive and market-dominant position and exploiting regulatory ambiguity to avoid scrutiny (Atal, 2021).

In conclusion, data breaches provide insights into individual preferences, and opinions that can be used by political campaigns to craft highly personalised messages that resonate with specific groups of voters and encourage engagement and support. However, in order to ensure that platforms are not misused to interfere in elections, manipulate voters or spread propaganda, platform regulation is crucial, setting standards that platforms should follow to maintain a safe environment for their users and ensure that personal information is handled responsibly and securely.

Reference List

Atal, M. R. (2021). The Janus faces of Silicon Valley. Review of International Political Economy : RIPE, 28(2), 336–350. https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2020.1830830

Flew, T., Martin, F., & Suzor, N. (2019). Internet regulation as media policy: Rethinking the question of digital communication platform governance. Journal of Digital Media & Policy, 10(1), 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1386/jdmp.10.1.33_1

Graham-Harrison, E., & Cadwalladr, C. (2018, March 17). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election

Hirsch, M., Stubenvoll, M., Binder, A., & Matthes, J. (2023). Beneficial or Harmful? How (Mis)Fit of Targeted Political Advertising on Social Media Shapes Voter Perceptions. Journal of Advertising, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2023.2175081

Scripps News . (2018). How effective is social media in politics? Www.youtube.com. https://youtu.be/JgaeGgYkU5g?si=RYFdCmPWQokIckD9

Stieglitz, S., & Dang-Xuan, L. (2013). Social media and political communication: a social media analytics framework. Social Network Analysis and Mining, 3(4), 1277–1291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13278-012-0079-3

The New York Times. (2018). How Cambridge Analytica Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions | NYT. Www.youtube.com. https://youtu.be/mrnXv-g4yKU?si=GXNMDjtupXeKSaL1