DURBAN – Toxic and unethical social media giants need a “snotklap” in advertising revenue before they will clean up their act, but South Africans also need to be far more alert in cyberspace.
Post the ANC elective conference and ahead of next year’s national elections, a stark warning on psychological manipulation on social media has been sounded.
On Friday, the storm continued to swirl around personal information belonging to 50 million Facebook users being lifted by Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political research firm, to manipulate elections.
While the scandal has seen Facebook’s shares drop by about 9% this week, wiping out more than $50 billion (R586bn) of its market value, Facebook users have been alerted to not only their personal information being taken but also the sinister manipulation of crafting or changing of their perceptions.
South African IT and communications specialist Arthur Goldstuck said the Analytica scandal was “very similar” to the racially-charged Bell Pottinger campaign run in South Africa, allegedly for the Gupta family. Both companies are from the UK.
“People are focused on the personal information being taken but the more important issue is the manipulation of people’s perceptions. Cambridge Analytica’s campaign was designed to sway sentiment, while Bell Pottinger’s was designed to bring down a country – it was far more sinister because they tried to create a false narrative, which fed into prejudices and created massive damage in our country, particularly promoting racial divides.
“That showed us how evil the manipulation on social media can be and we have to be on guard. We can see it’s a fairly simple process to manipulate elections via social media. The Russians and Analytica have done us a favour by highlighting how social media can be used,” he said.
Commenting on next year’s national elections, Goldstuck said the ANC’s recent elective conference saw a Twitter campaign launched to bolster the chances of ANC presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
“Such a campaign creates ‘bots’ (fake followers) who express support, but in the Dlamini Zuma case it was done too late and very badly.
“You can create an army of followers (bots) from scratch or you can buy followers.
“Political parties who have the resources and lack appropriate ethics will continue to exploit loopholes available to them.
“The public need to become more aware and educate themselves. Most people consume social media very passively. They do not think things through and blindly share. If it is a dramatic story or comment, check the source before sharing it. Be aware it has become more subtle with efforts to manipulate your thoughts,” said Goldstuck.
He added that social media giants needed to take responsibility for the protection of users on their platforms, with the fall-out resulting in advertisers withdrawing from platforms.
“They (advertisers) don’t want to be associated with toxic platforms. Advertising is the main reason for social media’s existence, but they failed to clamp down and this has led to advertisers pulling out.
“We don’t have any mechanisms to protect social media users. This is why it is incumbent on social networks to police themselves. Twitter only reacts when it’s forced to; Facebook at least has a sense of shame. Google and YouTube are also toxic environments. Google has done very little to limit the dishonesty assimilating on its networks.
“They need a ‘snotklap’ in their advertising revenue before they take responsibility.
“It’s all to do with profits and a lack of responsibility. When Mark Zuckerberg is forced to stand and testify in front of the US Congress, there will be blood on the walls,” he said, highlighting that South Africans ahead of next year’s elections need to “be awake, be aware and be alert”.
Meanwhile, Dr Colin Thakur, director at KZN E-Skills Lab, said “overt profiling” created a complete understanding of a user’s lifestyle, inherent in the Google brag – “we know where you are, we know what you like, we know what you are thinking’.
“It is a big brother system,” he said, adding that the Cambridge Analytica campaign “was darker”.
“You can see how important profiling is in elections. For politicians every vote counts as you saw when (Donald) Trump won.”
But Thakur said social media platforms were here to stay.
“It’s there, it’s real, and companies need to confront, engage and monitor it. There can be a lot of good done on social media, such as many causes being addressed.
“The public should not share information passively. Share information carefully, especially if it is sensational information and regarding politics.
“If you see a sensational tweet, look at the profile – if the profile is following lots of people, but has no followers and is tweeting too much in a short space of time, then it is a bot,” he said.
Zuckerberg broke five days of silence which had followed the breaking news over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with a Facebook post and a rare media appearance.
“Accepting that Facebook has a ‘responsibility’ to protect its users’ data, Zuckerberg posted: “If we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
Goldstuck said: “He sounded apologetic, but the steps they are taking are just not vigorous enough.”