How would you feel if I tell you, that Facebook could decide the next election?

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about some campaign ads – I talk about Facebook selecting a candidate in advance and improving this candidate voter turnout by a margin that almost guarantees his or her success.

If you follow the news out of tech and psychology you know that they already tried the system, have it up and running and there is no law that prevents them from doing so!

So let me guide you through it and then you can decide for yourself if you should freak out or not…

The science

Since 2012  Facebook tests how to increase voter turnout. One of these tests used a little window that was shown to people to encourage them to vote.

There is actually a very good article on Nature about that

So this experiment was designed to increase voter turnout in general. By showing a popup that let you see who of your friends already voted and gave you the choice to also show that you voted yourself.

This is a pretty nifty idea and at the time I applauded Facebook for it – we should all be able to vote and go voting if we choose to and I think encouraging people is a good cause.

In today’s world, we have of course have to also account for other possibilities that AI brings, especially in the current political climate.

Facebook is quite open about their experiments with AI for emergency calls and content aggregation. Sadly this opens up some scary options in today’s political discourse.

Here are some of the ways Facebook could influence elections

The stealth approach

Facebook could run AI and sort people into two categories :

  1. Will vote for the favorite candidate
  2. Will likely not vote for favorite candidate or not vote at all

If Facebook want´s to tilt one candidate they just show the popup only to the people who would vote for Facebooks favorite candidate. – They can even do this on a voter district level. After the results from the 2012 Paper, this would have been enough for changing the election in 2016 in the USA or change the outcome of the “Brexit” vote in the UK.

More troubling in my opinion is however that this would be almost undetectable and if detected it would be pretty hard to prove because Facebook would just say they had some technical difficulties in showing the popup to everybody. – Just like Twitter always claims that shadowbans are due to technical difficulties…

The not-so-stealth approach

Of course, as a private company, Facebook could just openly support a certain candidate and run AI to sort people into three categories :

  1. Will vote for X
  2. Will vote for Y
  3. Is still undecided

Seven Days before the official vote everybody who wants to vote for Facebooks favorite candidate gets a popup with some talking points about the candidate and some friend who is still undecided (“Hey how about you talk with <friend who is still undecided> about <candidate X> and his stance on <candidate strong issue>”)

This gets repeated every day – after the week you will have an unbelievable amount of peer pressure build-up for not only the people who want to vote for candidate X but also for the people that were undecided.

Conclusion

There is no law that really forbids this! Facebook is a private company, especially in the US but also in the EU and as such, they can promote whatever they want.

Facebook is also not the only company that has this kind of reach. Google got accused a couple of times in the last year to favor a political agenda in their search results. Engineers from Twitter revealed that they “shadowbanned” certain users and topics so the audience is not aware of the Tweets and their information.

By no stretch of the imagination is this something that could really screw up our democratic process.

That all said – right now I don’t think Facebook did manipulate any elections (in the western world) yet. But on the other side, there is no one really keeping an eye on this.