For the past year, I’ve been doing deep dives into interviews of officials on both sides of the issue to understand what they’re seeing, and the experience of the voters in the 10 states and District of Columbia that vote in congressional elections. These reports are the first in a series, “Democrats and Republicans on Facebook,” in which I’ll shine a light on where the candidates are coming down on the issue of suppressing voter turnout in the midterm elections. The focus will be on two areas: (1) the impact of Facebook and Google on news and misinformation, and (2) the role of social media platforms in the two political parties’ political strategies and messaging.
The Facebook Papers
One year ago, I met with people inside Facebook who were charged with analyzing what was happening on their platform, and they told me that they were surprised to discover the possibility that “fake news” could impact elections. At the time, I wondered how bad it could get, but these papers from academics confirm that this is a serious problem that is accelerating. The scientists identified three categories of “truthful ignorance”:
First, some facts were so apparent to people that they were simply not able to reach the truth. Thus, they couldn’t judge the accuracy of information or debate it.
Second, they were dismissive of information that was actually true. For example, when they interacted with Russia-backed accounts, they found that many did not address sources of misinformation like the Gateway Pundit.
Third, sometimes misinformation material seemed like speculation, but few actually challenged it — at least not adequately. Even when alternative views were suggested, they did not engage with them seriously. This group only interacted at a so-called deeper level — they tagged the subject or topic, instead of responding directly.
These findings confirm that what Trump calls a “crooked media” is in fact a global network that is influencing elections, and it’s due largely to Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
In the 2012 election, 72 million Americans saw content from President Obama’s campaign that was produced by a data firm, Targeted Victory, with assistance from a liberal firm, Fuse Corps. Many of the ads were targeted based on whether someone was a voter in one of the 18 states that were decided by 10 percentage points or less. In this election, according to the New York Times, Facebook says it has now identified 126 million Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — who saw at least one piece of fake news since 2014. In 2010, Facebook told researchers that it identified “biased posts” by 126 million people.
The prevailing conclusion among these studies is that the misinformation is produced by a central campaign group, with every Facebook post vetted through committees, sometimes in the United States and the rest from Russia, or other countries, based on their influence in the election in question. Much of the money for these campaigns comes from the Russian government, according to studies and news reports.
The emerging takeaway from these papers is that the threat of misinformation campaigns is real, and that the general public must decide whether it is part of the fabric of our democracy. We can’t control how our social media tools are used, but we can control how we interact with them. The research shows that these fake election news campaigns are hard to spot, and as a result, it is harder to be sure what is reliable information and what is false.
However, I agree with Facebook and Twitter on this point: It is morally unacceptable to mislead voters about who is trying to influence them in a democracy.
It’s Not Just About Facebook
This “fake news” phenomenon is not a Facebook-only problem. Many of the same practices used by the Russian and Syrian intelligence services to interfere in our elections are also happening on Facebook, Google, and other social media sites.
Many of the same techniques employed by Kremlin-backed companies like the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Moscow are also used by other companies, including Iran, North Korea, and certain American companies. Iran has become the world’s top spender on Facebook (perhaps even Twitter) because of the tools being used. The Iranian administration has reported that their goal is to improve their international and domestic reputation in order to enhance their ability to influence and infiltrate politics.
We must take on Russia’s use of social media to influence elections as a serious national priority. But we also need to grapple with the fact that Russia is not the only national actor leveraging social media to influence elections. It is very likely that digital oligarchical firms will continue to seek to penetrate politics and conduct influence campaigns in the United States and elsewhere. Therefore, it is essential that we act before it is too late.