Will social media’s impact on the elections be different this time?

Will nefarious players use social media to sway public opinion again this November?

"I Voted" sticker
  • The effective subversion of social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was unprecedented and highlighted the major role social media plays in politics.
  • Today, it's harder to repurpose private social data than it was four years ago, but paid and organic audience microtargeting continues.
  • Fake news and disinformation still spread freely. Networks of fake accounts are being taken down, but there's no way to know what percentage continue to operate. Meanwhile, the same principles power the news feed algorithms, surfacing partisan content and reaffirming audience biases.

Social media has emerged as a political intermediary used to assert influence and achieve political goals. The effective subversion of social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was unprecedented and highlighted the major role social media plays in politics.

With the continual growth of online communities, Americans have gained greater access to the political landscape and election news. But on the other hand, social media can be used to spread misinformation and engender bias among voters.

With a new election just around the corner, it's worth revisiting the dynamics of social media and American politics in order to better anticipate what we can expect on November 3, 2020.

Microtargeting will be a strategy

It didn't take long for pundits to recognize how much had changed in manipulative electioneering with the rise of social media. Quickly after the results were announced, it became clear that the 2016 election was a watershed moment in how targeted propaganda can be disseminated using advanced computational techniques.

Consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, for example, bypassed Facebook rules by creating an app requiring Facebook account login, which, in turn, mined vast amounts of personal information about the users and their friends. This information was then shared with Cambridge Analytica's network of contacts, despite a ban on downloading private data from Facebook's ecosystem and sharing it with third parties.

Facebook privacy settings


The firm then leveraged the data to generate microtargeted political ad campaigns, according to former Cambridge Analytica staffer and whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, but the platform won't stop microtargeting campaigns on its platform. To make things worse, Cambridge Analytica analysts are already back at work.

One trend to watch out for in microtargeting is the rise of nanoinfluencers. These small time influencers have far fewer followers, but target a highly tailored audience. Political marketers will leverage nanoinfluencers in tandem with other forms of social media manipulation to digitally knock on the doors of those most likely to be swayed by their canvassing. But knocking on the right doors requires data.

This ease of access to data and the continued popular strategy of psychographic segmentation means that unethical use of user information will likely still play a role in the 2020 elections.

Foreign influence and disinformation is still a threat

Dividing voters into narrow segments and then whispering targeted messages into their ears was also central to Russian trolls' strategy of spreading disinformation via social media in an effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 elections. It's estimated that 126 million American Facebook users were targeted by Russian content over the course of their subversive campaign.

Aside from fake news, jackers also skewed the elections by illegally obtaining and then releasing private information and documents amidst tons of hype. The Wikileaks scandal gave hackers the opportunity to discredit Clinton and the DNC leadership by leaking emails days before the party's convention. Likewise, the circumstances surrounding FBI Director James Comey's October 28 letter to Congress, discussion of which dominated social media news feeds for weeks, will likely never be revealed.

Social media big hitters have stated before Congress that they are taking active steps to prevent the spread of disinformation and ensure protection from foreign influence, but stopping deceptive networks is a constant battle. In 2019, Facebook removed 50 networks from foreign actors, including Iran and Russia, that were actively spreading fake information, and from January to June of this year, another 18 have been removed. Just this month, Facebook removed dozens of troll accounts based out of Romania for coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Both Twitter and Facebook have begun flagging posts from public figures when disinformation is contained therein, although the way these flags look differs considerably.

Donald J. Trump tweet flagged for violating Twitter rules

Facebook and Twitter

Facebook, which eventually instituted new ad transparency policies, has also banned ads from state-controlled media outlets, for example from Russia or China, from their platform. This won't stop governments from accessing more illicit means of spreading propaganda on Facebook and into the minds of America's voters — identifying proxies can be tricky. Plus, they pretty much got away with it last time and even convinced the mainstream media to pick up some of the fake stories.

Well into election season, the spread of disinformation and the potential involvement of foreign influence has already begun. And it isn't limited to the election. These tactics are also being used to spread lies about the coronavirus pandemic and the racial protests to incite division and unrest. Even with constant vigilance, it's likely that information war-inclined countries with the tech knowhow and the will to do harm could influence the upcoming election, and that should concern us all.

It’s still too easy to weaponize algorithms 

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social platforms made efforts to change their algorithms and policies to prevent manipulation. But it just isn't enough.

On Twitter, complete anonymity and the proliferation of automated bots and fake accounts were integral to the 2016 campaign and continue to outpace any efforts the platform makes to curb disinformation. Just last month, a Twitter hack into blue check accounts, including those of Obama and Biden, showed that this year's election is still at risk.

Hackers have a rapt audience if they manage to make it in. Close to 70 percent of American adults are on Facebook and millions are on Twitter, most of them every day. As part of the 2016 campaign, foreign agents published more than 131,000 tweets and uploaded over 1,100 videos to YouTube. Now, with the global domination of TikTok, there are even more ways to target voters.

Digital propaganda has only improved with time, and despite the valiant efforts of Dr. Frankenstein, the monster social media created is not easily subdued. This month YouTube banned thousands of accounts for a coordinated influence campaign, Facebook shut down even more and has implemented additional encryption and privacy policies since 2016. On Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram and more, malicious manipulation is just a click away, and there is only so much community standards and terms of service agreements can do to stop it.

Echo chambers and growing mistrust 

Since 2016, more Americans than ever mistrust mainstream news and get their facts on social media making misinformation and deliberate disinformation a concern in 2020. By 2016, only half of Americans watched TV for news, while those who found their news online reached 43 percent – up 7 percent from the year before.

The problem isn't that people are getting their news from the internet, it's that the internet is the perfect forum for spreading fake news. And a rapidly growing number of Americans will take at least some of this fake news to be fact. Furthermore, believing misinformation is actually linked to a decreased likelihood of being receptive to actual information.

illustration of woman trapped in bubble


This demonstrates how the spread of partisan messaging is amplified by the proliferation of echo chambers online. Americans who engage with partisan content are likely choosing to do so because the story confirms their existing ideologies. In turn, social media algorithms exacerbate this tendency by only showing content that is similar to what we engage with. This algorithmic amplification of people's confirmation biases screens out dissenting opinions and reinforces the most marginal viewpoints.

Extreme online groups leverage this tendency to market to homogeneous networks. Recent research demonstrates that social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter can facilitate this selection into homogenous networks, increasing polarization and solidifying misinformed beliefs. The fundamental principles that inform these algorithms hasn't changed since 2016, and we're already seeing them at play, fomenting polarization in 2020, as civil discontent and the pandemic have propelled divisiveness and discontent.


In 2016, subversive actors used social media to manipulate the American political process, both from within and from without. There isn't much room for optimism that this year things will be much different. If anything, the risks are greater than before. There is, however, some glittering hope emanating from a somewhat ironic place: TikTok.

Flipping the script on Twitter-happy Trump, some activists engaged in a weeks-long campaign to artificially inflate the number of people registered to attend a June campaign rally in Tulsa. The prank was a success, with campaign staff bragging about anticipated turnout going through the roof, leaving the arena with only 31 percent of its seats occupied with Trump supporters.

While anecdotal, this goes to show that while social media can be a tool for the halls of power to manipulate the masses, it can also be a tool for grassroots mobilization against the halls of power.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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