Beyond the Feed: Exploring How Social Media Drives Voters Polarization

    • By,
      Shreya Maheshwari – Executive Assistant to the Dean, Kautilya

Back in 2017, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, wrote on Twitter, “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American People.” The message was clear, highlighting the use of propaganda by various consulting firms to polarize voters. “How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions.” This was the headline published by The New York Times on 17 March 2018.

Did Trump’s consulting company really exploit millions of Facebook users’ data? Yes, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, harvested private information from the profiles of over 50 million users without their consent, marking the most significant data leak in social media history. This data was then used to manipulate voters’ minds. Every user’s behaviour was analyzed, and content was tailored based on their preferences, watch history, and choices, pushing it into their feeds.

What you see on social media isn’t 100% true. If the content relates to any political party or figure, the message is likely manipulated to create a perception that may not align with reality. Have you ever noticed that when you move from one place to another, your Facebook and Instagram feeds change based on your geographical location? Even YouTube shorts behave similarly. This happens due to algorithms.

Have you ever planned to buy a specific brand of shoes, and suddenly, your Facebook feed is flooded with ads for that exact brand? This is the power of social media. What appears in front of you is strategically placed, as you’re among the target audience. Similarly, the news you see in your feeds is specially designed for you, thanks to the Facebook algorithm. Remember that news? The one claiming that when the Modi government comes to power, everyone will receive 15 lakhs in their hands free of cost. In reality, Prime Minister Modi never said this. It was an example presented by him to illustrate what a stable government can do and its vision for the country. That snippet was cut from a different angle and presented in a way that innocent people believed they would receive 15 lakhs in their accounts.

Now, can you differentiate between what is real and what is fake?

Consider the example of a video featuring Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, where it seems he’s talking about a star nation and a revolutionary idea of turning potatoes into gold. Did you see that video? Do you know how badly a single snippet from the video tarnished his image? In reality, it was a response statement at a political rally. He was trying to convey that the BJP can manipulate votes by making imaginary statements. Both the clips of Mr Modi and Rahul Gandhi were manipulated multiple times and presented in a way that compelled us to believe what news agencies wanted to portray was true.

In today’s era, we can’t even imagine how a group of people controls our ideas and thought processes by using AI and deepfake. Prime Minister Modi has even raised this concern, highlighting its significant impact on our society.

The hyper-local entertainment platforms such as Moj and ShareChat are also used to manipulate voters. Most parties utilize precise location-oriented content mechanisms to reach grassroots voters in blocks and mandals. Their Facebook pages are filled with content specially designed for them, making fact-checking difficult as everyone is discussing the same topic. The chances of debunking false information become next to impossible when popular opinions dominate the news space. Here, views become news.

During the American election, Trump stated that fake news is not his enemy but the enemy of America. This approach is mirrored in present-day India, where every political party has its social media army. You, knowingly or unknowingly, have become part of that social media army by consuming content.

Don’t believe me? Try a quick exercise. Go to Twitter, open any random politician’s account, and check the comment section. You’ll see how unknown individuals engage in battles over topics that may not even be relevant to them. That’s the power of social media.

Now, let me conclude with an appeal. With elections approaching, it’s crucial to fact-check messages in our inboxes before forwarding them. Otherwise, we might find ourselves arguing with unknown persons over topics that don’t even concern us.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.