Fact sheet: Avoiding online manipulation & protecting democracy
Significance of online manipulation during electoral elections
Online manipulation in elections is a growing concern as it can sway voters’ perceptions and choices. Using digital platforms, tactics such as disinformation, targeted ads, and bot campaigns aim to shape public opinion. Targeted ads, driven by behavioural data, resonate with 91% of consumers who prefer personalised brand communication. These ads are tailored based on demographics, preferences, and potential purchases. Howard and Kollanyi (2016) highlight concerns of online manipulation during the 2016 Brexit referendum, emphasising extensive misinformation about the EU and the questionable role of targeted digital advertising, notably by Cambridge Analytica. The implications of such manipulative efforts are profound, impacting democratic processes and trust.
Importance of informed and responsible online behaviour
Research has repeatedly linked cyberbullying to adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. For instance, Hinduja and Patchin (2010) found that victims of cyberbullying are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to those who haven’t had such experiences.
Sheng et al. (2010) surveyed 1001 people to study how demographics affect phishing susceptibility and how well anti-phishing education works. Before training, participants said they would click on 52% of phishing links and enter information on 47% of phishing websites. After training, education materials reduced phishing susceptibility by 40%. However, educators must still teach people how to distinguish phishing from legitimate messages to avoid false positives.
Another risk of the Internet, and in particular of the social networks, is the limited exposure to diverse viewpoints, that can exacerbate societal polarization. Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic (2015) studied Facebook users and found friends often shared news aligned with their ideology. Algorithms reduced diverse content exposure by 15%, resulting in 70% fewer clicks on contents presenting an opinion different from that of the user. On social media, selective viewing dominates political news consumption.
How it works
In today’s digital era, as we use the internet more, we become more susceptible to manipulation by harmful individuals and genuine businesses. But you can explore methods such as IMVAIN to act as a critical consumer of information! Social media platforms gather extensive user data to understand preferences and vulnerabilities. This data aids microtargeting, where messages are customised for specific groups or individuals. Recognising these tactics is vital to staying independent and making informed choices. A notable example is the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the company used data from Facebook to send targeted political ads to influence the US Presidential election.
To avoid online manipulation, one needs tech literacy, vigilance, and knowledge of manipulative tactics.
To avoid online manipulation:
1. Think critically: Evaluate information sources and their motivations.
2. Diversify sources: Use various channels to avoid echo chambers.
3. Fact-check: Verify info using trusted websites.
4. Question emotional stories: Be wary of overly sensational narratives.
5. Protect personal data: Avoid suspicious links and untrusted downloads.
6. Stay informed: Know common online manipulation tactics.
7. Learn digital literacy: Join courses on online manipulation and deepfakes detection.
6. Prioritize security: Use only secure encrypted websites (a little lock should appear at the left of the address, which should always start by https://)
9. Update regularly: Keep software up-to-date for protection.
10. Use official information: Consult official channels, like governments or institutions’ websites.
Training and counseling
By combining training and counselling methods, individuals can be better equipped to recognize and counter online manipulation, ensuring that their decisions related to e-voting are informed and autonomous. We provide here a few suggestions.
1. Digital literacy training:
- To boost threat recognition.
- To learn to navigate the digital environment, discern sources, and detect deepfakes.
2. Cybersecurity training:
- To understand phishing, malware, and the importance of using secure portals.
- To strengthen the security of your data.
👉 To enhance your digital literacy and to give you insights about privacy and security: DigitalSmarts
3. Media literacy workshops:
- To help evaluate news and minimize the risk of misinformation.
- To become aware of media biases, journalism ethics, and avoid sensationalism.
4. Fact-checking workshops:
- To learn to utilize fact-check platforms and independent checks.
- To help you identify trustful sources.
5. Emotional resilience counseling:
- To counter emotional and fear-based manipulation.
- To encourage resistance to targeted content.
6. Group counseling:
- To share experience and strategies against manipulation.
- To build defense methods.
7. Ethical tech training:
- To learn more tech ethics, data privacy, and online responsibility.
- To give you keys to cultivate ethical online actions.
👉 On this topic: Ethical use of technology
8. Scenario-based training:
- To engage with realistic manipulation simulations.
- To develop hands-on defense skills.
When working to protect democracy from online manipulation, achieving certain milestones can be proof of progress. Here are some key milestones, in decreasing order of importance, for governments and non-governmental associations to consider to reduce online risks:
- Consult guidelines on national anti-fraud strategies to facilitate risk identification
- Establishment of educational programmes
- Public awareness campaigns
- Extensive fact-checking initiatives
- Secure voting mechanisms for a trustworthy election
- Community observation groups