How social media are influencing voters and skewing public opinion in the 2020 US presidential campaign

Macro

Althea Spinozzi

Fixed Income Strategist, Saxo

Summary:  Social media will play a central role in the next US elections as people are spending more time online than ever before in human history. The information that voters get through these platforms is often biased, making it a powerful tool for campaigners to skew public opinion. Within this context, the Trump campaign seems to be better equipped to run a digital campaign over Biden's.


This year we are going to witness one of a kind US election.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way politics are done as people are more online now than at any point of human history.

While the internet is looked upon as a tool to explore the world and gain better knowledge, it has become a powerful political weapon which can skew and polarize people’s opinion. It is possible because of the way that social media organizes and distributes this content based on a user’s personal preference. However, the user doesn't personally choose it. One user's preference is evaluated by a computer that runs algorithms and carefully canvases the user’s personality, friend circles and reaction to various messages.

This is what we call Artificial Intelligence (AI) because once a computer understands what your interests are, it presents you with content and advertisement that matches your profile.

AI aims to please individuals to increase engagement and extend a platform's client base in order to push for more advertisement and ultimately make more money. The algorithm discards any news that might not captivate or agree with the reader. Thus one receives only content that is intentionally meant to please him. Evidence demonstrates that what citizens see in their social media is mainly decided by their social network. For example, suppose the user's group of friends is composed of liberals. In that case, he will receive news that has a democratic inclination. Because users are repetitively exposed to such content, there is a higher probability for them to read it[i].

This creates a false sense that everybody shares the user's ideas. Still, in reality, everybody operates on a different set of facts. We arrived at the point that it is tricky to consume information other than the one that is presented to us. Ultimately, this magnifies polarization opinions causing a clash between ideologies.

Not all information voters receive through social media is good

  • Political misinformation and Fake News phenomenon

    Empirical studies show that the most significant share of content users consume are ideologically extreme. This is due to the fact that users with extreme ideological positions produce disproportionally more content than moderate users[ii]. At the same time, a significant share of these extremist news turns out to be fake. Although monetary rather than political reasons drive fake news, it is proved that they have played in favour of President Trump during the 2016 elections. A research has found out that a great part US voters were able to remember clearly some of the fake news that they had consumed before the elections[iii], contributing to their final voting decision.

  • Independent Trolls and Hired Trolls
    Social media are full of trolls. Independent trolls are individuals that act in their own interests, while hired trolls are those that have a third party sponsor that pays them to write fake posts and comments in public spaces. Western intelligence has identified Russia to be one of the trolls' sponsor multiple times in an effort to influence public opinion; however, it is yet not known to what degree they are able to influence voters. What is certain is that AI is not able to distinguish between independent and hired trolls. Thus, their comments will be visible indistinctly to most people and could persuade a voter concerning specific views. Either trolls, engage in polarizing behavior posting comments that cause emotional distress[iv].

The above are just some of the problems concerning social media information. Consequences of misinformation are magnified by the fact that commercially driven humans design algorithms—their aim to increase the value of their company by pushing more content to the end-users.

How are social media going to influence voters compared to 2016 election?

It looks like this election is going to be influenced by social media more than any other in history. Even though there is evidence that distorted reality has played in favour of Trump's 2016 election, little steps have been taken to resolve this phenomenon. For example, last October Facebook fact-checked one of Trump’s posts and flagged it to be based on fake news. Following the incident, Facebook amended its political advertisement policy so that paid campaign ads will not be censored even in the event of false information[v]. This means that candidates can build their campaign on real or fake news regardless.

At the same time, the amount of wrong information is exponentially higher today than in 2016. Only concerning the coronavirus pandemic, 329 websites are providing false information at the moment[vi]. In April only 36 websites were containing fake COVID-19 information. At the same time, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that around half of the Twitters concerning coronavirus were likely to be bots[vii]. The US elections will not be immune from the same volume of fake news.

Social media will continue to push through users' feeds extreme political ideas, which one won't be able to separate from fake news and paid trolls. The reason why this type of content works for social platforms is that humans are naturally attracted to it. Some companies are actively leveraging on divisiveness to achieve their own corporate goals. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal[viii], Facebook executives decided not to take action to make the site less divisive. One of the slides from a 2018 company's presentation was saying "Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness”.

In this context, the republicans seem to have a net advantage over the democrats. Brad Pascale is the name of the man that was behind 2016 Trump's digital campaign. He claimed to have run 5.9 million visual advertisements on Facebook, while the Hilary Clinton campaign ran only 66,000. Pascale explained that the Trump campaign has been running non-stop since 2016, and that they have improved technology and data operations. Democrats, on the other hand, do not seem to be as organized putting the Biden campaign in net disadvantage[ix].



[i] Bakshy, Eytan, Dean Eckles, Rong Yan, and Itamar Rosenn. (2012) “Social Influence in Social Advertising: Evidence from Field Experiments.” Proceedings of the 13th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce.

[ii] Barberá, Pablo, and Gonzalo Rivero. (2015). “Understanding the Political Representativeness of Twitter Users.” Social Science Computer Review.

[iii] Allcott, Hunt and Matthew Gentzkow. (2017). “Social media and fake news in the 2016 election.” Journal of Economic Perspectives.

[iv] Marwick, Alice, and Rebecca Lewis. (2017).”Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.” Data & Society Research Institute.

[v] https://www.ft.com/content/760c8782-f114-11e9-ad1e-4367d8281195

[vi] https://www.newsguardtech.com/coronavirus-misinformation-tracking-center/

[viii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499?mod=hp_lead_pos5

[ix] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/the-man-behind-trumps-facebook-juggernaut

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