The Impact of Social media in Majoritarian systems: Is Democracy threatened?

By Jorge Comesaña García, BSc Political Economy at King's College London

In 2016 over 62% of the United States population used social media as their main source of news [1]. These platforms allow access to an overwhelming amount of information. However, who actually decides what reaches the reader? Every user is given the chance to post freely, but it is the platform’s algorithm which decides what reaches us. Democracies have various electoral systems, the United States citizens, just like 40% of the world population vote in what is referred as a majoritarian system or SMP (Single Member Constituencies) [2]. Under this system, the strongest party in each constituency wins the seat. Meaning that in many constituencies, very few votes can be decisive. The US is considered a democracy. Democracy is often referred, as regular, free and fair elections. Could elections be considered free if individual political persuasion was done unconsciously? 


Many have tried to find out the criteria under which the algorithm decides what we read. Nevertheless, social media companies decide not to show the reasons behind the content  we consume. The contradiction arises when on one hand, the platforms assure that they  make huge efforts to customize the delivery of content but on the other, they affirm they  cannot let us know the motives behind the customization. Facebook, for example, possesses large databases with information about its users through which, they are able to reach an unprecedented level of personalization. In 2016 Donald Trump’s campaign team hired a company called Cambridge Analytica which targeted voters in 16 battleground states [3].

They first started offering money to complete personality quizzes which required to log in with the individual’s Facebook account. After, the app not only collected the test-takers personal information on Facebook, but also their friends’. Using these data, they developed a psychographic method. They used this technique to select the profile they wanted to target and persuaded them to vote Trump with ads and web impressions on Facebook [4]. They were also able to target communities expected to vote his opponent, like white liberals or the Afro-American community, and induced them not to vote. 

Similar methods can be used for political persuasion without hijacking the user’s information like Cambridge Analytica did. Unlike what many people think, Facebook does not sell our data directly to other companies. Facebook places ads from different brands based on the information they have about you. Meaning Facebook can agree to  show a brands advert on your feed based on the profile the brand is looking to target [5]. Political persuasion can be done the same way. This is especially dangerous in majoritarian systems, where very few votes can be crucial to win a constituency. Once the profiles of indecisive voters have been identified, a firm hired by a party can focus on delivering extremely personalized adverts to individuals who can determine who wins the constituency. If done in many constituencies it can change the course of the elections. In 2016, 138 million people voted in the US presidential election but only around 13.5 million voters were targeted [6].

Reaching everyone through social media would be a waste of resources as many citizens, due to factors like partisanship, already have a clear idea of who to vote. In addition to this, the majoritarian system reinforces bipartidism. In other systems (such as PR) various parties may have a chance to win the elections. In majoritarian systems the battle for victory is usually only fought between two parties, making it easier to persuade voters to view your opponent negatively. 

Is there an actual challenge to democracy? Persuasion and manipulation have always been  present in democratic systems. However, contrasting to the content in newspapers or TV  channels, one cannot choose whether to read the ads and webs impressions placed on social media. Furthermore, being able to persuade individually leaves majoritarian systems on a very vulnerable spot. New legislation must be created. Political advertising should operate under a new legal framework that assures the continuity of democracy. It is the role of governments and international organisations to foster these new laws. However, the parties that govern, in their constant process of seeking for power might sit back and do nothing. New legislation might not be of their interest, and the longer we  wait to take action the higher the erosion of our current institutions will be. 

Reference list

[1] Bell, E. & Owen, T. (2017) The Platform Press: How Sillicon Valley Reengineered  Journalism. Columbia Journalism School 

[2] Caramani, M. (2017) Comparative Politics. Oxford University Press.   

[3] Persily, N. (2017) Can Democracy Survive the Internet. Journal of Democracy. 

[4] Hern, A. (2018) Cambridge Analytica: how did it turn clicks into votes? The  Guardian. 

[5] Wagner, K. (2018) This is how Facebook uses your data for ad targeting. Vox. 

[6] Lopez, J. & Krogstad, M. (2017) Black voter turnout fell in 2016, even as a record  number of Americans cast ballots

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