Could Facebook really tip the balance in an election? Over the past year firms like AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica have been credited with using AI-targeted ads on social media to help swing the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election respectively. But a lack of evidence meant we have never known whether the technology exists to make this possible.
Now the first study detailing the process from start to finish is finally shedding some light. “This is the first time that I’ve seen all the dots connected,” says Joanna Bryson, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Bath, UK.
At the heart of the debate is psychographic targeting – the directing of political campaigns at people via social media based on their personality and political interests, with the aid of vast amount of data filtered by artificial intelligence..Though Facebook doesn’t explicitly provide the tools to target people based on political opinions, the new study shows how the platform can be exploited. Using combinations of people’s interests, demographics, and survey data it’s possible to direct campaigns at individuals based on their agreement with ideas and policies. This could have a big impact on the success of campaigns.
“The weaponised, artificially intelligent propaganda machine is effective. You don’t need to move people’s political dials by much to influence an election, just a couple of percentage points to the left or right,” says Chris Sumner at the Online Privacy Foundation, who is presenting the work this week at DEF CON in Las Vegas.