Can Social Media be Manipulated?

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February 26, 2016 (San Diego) Can social media be manipulated? This was the claim made by twitter users and we did look into it, due to #WhichHillary. Yes, there are several examples, and they range from the election of Barack Obama in 2008, which broke the rules and relied heavily on social media, to the AAP party in India. Arvind Kejriwal was a charismatic man, but they also did something else. They took it to the next step:

“Perhaps the most interesting development was an algorithm developed by 10 volunteers at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai. The research tool was designed to analyze the language used in thousands of tweets and Facebook posts to determine voter sentiment toward key events and issues as negative, weakly negative, neutral, weakly positive, or positive.”

This was one of those moments, where tactics used in two different countries were similar. But in India it went beyond the US Election, as far as we know.

Then there is the darker side. The Guardian reported back in 2011 that the military was getting ready to manipulate social media abroad. They wrote at the time:

“A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.”

“The project has been likened by web experts to China’s attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.”

Technology such as this can also be used in the United Staes, by anybody hired to control the message. Imagine a corporation using this. Or for that matter a politician. It would be a new form of dirty trickery, but politics is rife with those. Could this be considered illegal? We have nothing on the books regarding this. The military cannot do this in the United States, but nobody has said Google cannot.

Finally we have the social contagion study done by Facebook, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This study was reported by media, and the quick summary is that Facebook manipulated users moods by targeting stories to their feeds, Some were happy stories, others were not so happy. The recent use of emojis are being portrayed by a few users as a continuation of this.

So as you can see, social media is not just a place to share news stories, but it is a war zone. It is a place where political campaigns, where media campaigns, and advertisement campaigns come together. For the most part, users are not the wiser for this.

So what about suppression of a trend? We mentioned yesterday that this has happened in the past. In Mexico this was covered. And here is a second instance of this.

Now whether this is what happened with #WhichHillary, or #ReleaseTheTranscripts, is a valid question. Also, Omid Kordestani is hosting a fundraiser for the Clinton campaign this coming Sunday, so reports CNN. Kordestani is currently Executive Chairman of Twitter according to TechCrunch.

According to the same story, Twitter is bleeding users. This same point was raised by twitter users, in an often retweeted picture.

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So here the problem. Whether the trend was stopped, as many users suspect, by twitter, or not, the fact is that social media can influence politics. It has become a front in political fire storms, as well as album launches. For the Pentagon it is a new front, on the war on terror.

So this is the larger picture, of whether #WhichHillary was censored.

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