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​Dark ads and fake news. Potential impact on the Swedish election

Blog post   •   Jan 31, 2018 10:00 CET

The Internet has been called a democratic tool - a place where our voices can be heard. But can it also threaten our democratic way of life?

The past few years have raised concerns about the spread of fake news, false information by trolls, fake accounts and “news factories” on social media – all of which, many assert, may have deeply affected public opinion. The Brexit vote, the French and German elections, some say, may have been just a few examples where people’s views were swayed by the spread of misinformation.

During the US election, many claim that voters were influenced by social media. Did Russia meddle to affect the result through fake news and hacking campaigns? Some will say that the campaign of the now sitting President Donald Trump was openly based on a dirty, immoral online strategy.

One example of these online campaigns was Project Alamo, led by former Kansas restaurant owner, Brad Parscale. The campaign used collected data to direct ads - so called “dark ads”- at potential voters. The campaign had as much as 4,000 different data points on each individual voter. Project Alamo didn’t just target potential voters however. Taking the good old smear campaign to higher levels, they targeted Bernie fans, black people and young women, and sent them thousands and thousands of “dark ads,” tailored to the recipients.

According to some, young women received information about Bill Clinton being a sexual predator and black people would get bombarded with the 1996 quote from Hillary where she called young black men “super predators.” The focus of Project Alamo, it is said, was not only to win votes for Trump but also to get people to not show up on Election Day. Brad Parscale has openly said on numerous occasions that they deliberately discouraged people from voting and manipulated the election.

In 2018, the Swedish general election takes place. What role will social media play in Sweden?

The Swedish political scientist, Malena Rosén Sundström, has said that 2018 will be the year when social media has its breakthrough in Swedish politics as far as campaigning goes. The effective use of the Internet and data in political campaigning of late have not gone unnoticed with the political parties in Sweden and their strategists.

Facebook and Twitter and the sharing of fear-evoking information, talking to the darkest and ugliest sides of the human soul will, without a doubt, also play a role in the upcoming Swedish election. People high up in the Facebook hierarchy have recently publicly acknowledged that the site has had a negative effect on democracy. They have launched a number of changes to address this, many of which have been criticized, and many of which will not yet be implemented as the Swedish elections role out.

Fake news, lies and propaganda are expected. Recently, two major Swedish newspapers, in cooperation with public radio and TV, announced that they are working on a joint effort to fight fake news and the spread of misinformation. But another worrying phenomenon is also causing concern: dark ads.

Several of the Swedish parties will use them, some already are. Dark ads are designed for specific targets and directed immediately at them, with the help of data, for localization purposes. The problem they pose is that no one other than the receiver sees them. Therefore, it is impossible for media, other watchdogs and the public to know what political parties are promising their voters, making the auditing of an election difficult. What are the parties promising? And to whom? Are they promising different things to different people?

For sure, all of the political parties and their media strategists won’t be able to resist such a powerful tool and dirty marketing will take place. The use of social media will not be of insignificance to the election results.

The problem with social media is not only that it allows the spread of fake news and other toxic information. It is also that it allows the creation of humongous data banks where all of us are registered, and through which all of us can be sorted into categories, found and targeted.

That does not go for all social media though.

Idka is built for the user, is ad-free, and does not use or share user information, except to provide a smooth and functional user experience. It is a platform built, not on the foundation of making money off of advertisement, but on the idea that being private is of essence and has a priceless value.

Corporations whose core purpose is making their investors rich(er) should not own our information. For their loyalty is to the owners and for them everything else is of less importance.

Even our democracy.

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