Social engineering is the hacking of human beings. It’s not new but what is new is the almost overnight and spectacular take up rate of social media across the world and it brings with it new challenges that in some context should be termed social media engineering.
Strangely, this is a technology where human verses human pitch skills against each other in ever greater numbers.
We are all aware of some of the dangers of putting ourselves ‘out-there’. We know that criminals can harvest data and steal our identities but we are not so aware of the intelligence operatives building an entire picture of who we are, how law enforcement is changing or how politicians steal elections.
Our permanently connected lives leave us vulnerable especially because we cannot see who these infiltrators are. As in all scenarios, some people are harder to trick than others but all humans are vulnerable to social media engineering.
Social media engineering is a bit different. For instance, after the Paris attacks on November 13th, Facebook switched on two lesser-known features: Safety Check and Temporary Profiles. The former was a way for people in Paris to let family and friends know they were safe; the latter splashed an overlay of the French flag on top of profile pictures.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to explain why this service was switched on for this attack and not previous terrorist attacks around the world. “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well … We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”
Was Facebook taking advantage of the situation? wired.com enquired with Facebook – “When I asked Facebook, the company pointed me toward its information page for Safety Check, noting that in the 24 hours following its activation, 4.1 million people marked themselves as safe and 360 million people were notified that someone was safe.”
By any stretch of the imagination, the speed of this interaction between people is a feat of solidarity probably never achieved in human history. Neither Facebook, nor twitter were around at events such as 9/11.
In the 2010 US congressional elections, 61 million Facebook users saw a ‘social’ message encouraging them to vote, with a link to polling station information, a clickable ‘I voted’ button, a counter showing how many people had clicked ‘I voted’, and the profile pictures of six of their Facebook friends who had done so. It turned that users who saw their friends’ faces were more likely to vote than those who saw the message alone. Hundreds of thousands of votes were attributed to this one action by Facebook.
In the 2015 general election in Britain, 10 parliamentary seats were won on less than one percent of the vote. One Conservative won his seat on a margin of just 27 votes. Since 1918 only three had won on such thin margins.
A report by 72point Digital Hub concluded -“Facebook has become a linchpin for right-wing parties, whereas Twitter is more of a left-wing social media channel.” It also concluded that with the Scottish referendum, social media played a role in mobilising voters for an unprecedented 84.6 percent turnout.
The scenario imagined above given certain algorithms is an example of digital gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of boundaries so as to favour one party or class.
It transpires that all sorts of factors contribute to what Facebook or Twitter present in a feed, or what Google or Bing show us in search results. None of these businesses promise neutrality at any time, let alone during an election. We don’t really think these companies will manipulate the information, content or advertiser sponsored links one way or another. But the thing is, they do already with personalised advertising, this much we know.
So digital gerrymandering occurs when a service instead distributes data or information in a manner that serves its own ideological agenda. For instance, why would Facebook, Google or Twitter want a left-wing party in power knowing that party will make them pay the tax due on their enormous revenues when a right-wing party lets them off.
In January 2012, for example, Google blacked out its home page “doodle” as a protest against the pending Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), said by its opponents to facilitate censorship. Wikipedia and Reddit joined in as did hundreds of popular websites. That co-ordinated protest paid off and it demonstrated the power of these companies verses their political opponents.
Robert Epstein reported for Politico a couple of months ago results of a study that truly shocked many. “Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.”
Epstein continues – “the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.”
In another group to be targeted, often young people are caricatured as being apathetic about politics. Cross-party think-tank DEMOS views social media’s “critical new spaces” as “organic, less hierarchical”, which political institutions cannot afford to neglect.
Yesterday, the House of Lords voted in favour of allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in Britain’s EU referendum. Peers argued that lowering the voting age would help to engage teenagers in politics. However, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to participate could be a boost to the pro-EU campaign as younger voters are viewed as more likely to support Britain’s continued membership.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom, a former Tory minister, claimed the move was an attempt to “tilt the whole playing-field” in favour of the pro-EU camp.
Perhaps he should not worry, the pro-EU camp has some big supporters. The US administration desperately wants Britain to stay in the EU. So do all the banks and largest corporate companies, many of whom collectively pay billions in revenue to all the social media and search engine organisations. The Conservatives also want Britain to stay and have turned a blind eye to these companies paying almost no taxes. You may think it a done deal?
And just to add injury to insult, computer scientists from the University of Warwick are using Twitter to predict the outcome of elections and now say their forecasts are far more accurate than traditional opinion polls by using an algorithm that harvests political tweets.