Will nefarious players use social media to sway public opinion again this November?
- 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.
Microtargeting will be a strategy<p>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.</p><p>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. </p>
Shutterstock<p>The firm then leveraged the data to generate microtargeted political ad campaigns, according to former Cambridge Analytica staffer and <a href="https://bigthink.com/podcast/cambridge-analytica" target="_self">whistleblower Christopher Wylie</a>. Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, but the platform won't stop <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/09/facebook-political-ads-micro-targeting-us-election" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">microtargeting campaigns</a> on its platform. To make things worse, Cambridge Analytica analysts are already <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/19/trump-cambridge-analytica-oczkowski-114075" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">back at work</a>.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-nanoinfluencers-are-slyly-barnstorming-the-2020-election/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">will leverage nanoinfluencers</a> 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.</p><p>This ease of access to data and the continued popular strategy of <a href="https://www.cbinsights.com/research/what-is-psychographics/" target="_blank">psychographic segmentation</a> means that unethical use of user information will likely still play a role in the 2020 elections.</p>
Foreign influence and disinformation is still a threat<p>Dividing voters into narrow segments and then whispering targeted messages into their ears was also central to <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/russian-facebook-ads-targeted-us-voters-before-2016-election/" target="_blank">Russian trolls' strategy</a> of spreading disinformation via social media in an effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 elections. It's estimated that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/technology/facebook-google-russia.html" target="_blank">126 million</a> American Facebook users were targeted by Russian content over the course of their subversive campaign.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37639370" target="_blank">discredit Clinton</a> 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.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/06/18/facebook-twitter-describe-efforts-fight-fake-posts-before-election/3215630001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fake information</a>, and from January to June of this year, another 18 have been removed. Just this month, Facebook removed dozens of troll accounts <a href="https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/8/21359823/facebook-trolls-black-trump-supporters-fake-accounts-instagram" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">based out of Romania</a> for coordinated inauthentic behavior. </p><p>Both Twitter and Facebook have begun flagging posts from public figures when disinformation is contained therein, although the way these flags look differs considerably.</p>
Facebook and Twitter<p>Facebook, which eventually instituted new ad transparency policies, has also <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/04/facebook-will-block-ads-from-state-controlled-media-outlets.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">banned ads</a> 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 <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/18/how-russia-weaponized-social-media-got-caught-escaped-consequences/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">got away with it</a> last time and even convinced the mainstream media to pick up some of the fake stories.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-trump-us-disinformation-foreign-interference-2020-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">spread lies</a> 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. </p>
It’s still too easy to weaponize algorithms<p>After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social platforms made efforts to change their algorithms and policies to prevent manipulation. But it just isn't enough.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/us/politics/twitter-hack.html" target="_blank">Twitter hack</a> into blue check accounts, including those of Obama and Biden, showed that this year's election is still at risk. </p><p>Hackers have a rapt audience if they manage to make it in. Close to <a href="http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">70 percent of American adults</a> are on Facebook and millions are on Twitter, most of them every day. As part of the 2016 campaign, foreign agents published more than <a href="https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10-31-17%20Edgett%20Testimony.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">131,000 tweets</a> and uploaded over<a href="https://storage.googleapis.com/gweb-uniblog-publish-prod/documents/google_US2016election_findings_1_zm64A1G.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 1,100 videos</a> to YouTube. Now, with the global domination of TikTok, there are even more ways to target voters.</p><p>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 <a href="https://techcrunch.com/2020/08/05/youtube-bans-thousands-of-chinese-accounts-to-combat-coordinated-influence-operations/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">banned thousands of accounts</a> for a coordinated influence campaign, Facebook <a href="https://about.fb.com/news/2020/07/removing-political-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">shut down even more</a> 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. </p>
Echo chambers and growing mistrust<p>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 <a href="https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/articles/the-past-decade-and-future-of-political-media-the-ascendance-of-social-media/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">half of Americans</a> watched TV for news, while those who found their news online reached 43 percent – up 7 percent from the year before. </p><p>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 <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/fake-news-republicans-democrats/591211/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">decreased likelihood</a> of being receptive to actual information. </p>
Shutterstock<p>This demonstrates how <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/non-partisan-brain" target="_self">the spread of partisan messaging</a> 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<a href="https://theconversation.com/feedback-loops-and-echo-chambers-how-algorithms-amplify-viewpoints-107935" target="_blank"> algorithmic amplification</a> of people's confirmation biases screens out dissenting opinions and reinforces the most marginal viewpoints.</p><p>Extreme online groups leverage this tendency to market to <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17457289.2018.1434784" target="_blank">homogeneous networks</a>. 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. </p>
Conclusion<p>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.</p><p>Flipping the script on Twitter-happy Trump, some activists engaged in a weeks-long campaign to <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-rally-tiktok-crowds-tulsa/" target="_blank">artificially inflate</a> 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.</p><p>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. </p>
Non-partisans are real, and their lack of partisanship has a cognative element.
- A new study suggests that the brains of non-partisans function differently than those of partisans.
- Blood flow to regions associated with problem solving differed between the two groups.
- The findings may lead to further research in how differences in brain activity affect personality.
Some people just really don’t want to join political clubs. Go figure.<p>The study, published in The Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties as "<a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17457289.2020.1801695" target="_blank">Neural Nonpartisans</a>," looked at blood flow in the brains of partisans and non-partisans as they played a betting game. The test subjects, all of which were from San Diego County, had their brains scanned as they decided between options with guaranteed payoffs or ones with the chance to lose or gain <a href="https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/homepage/title_809320_en.html" target="_blank">money</a>. The results were later compared to their voter registrations to confirm their partisanship or lack thereof. </p><p> The brain scans demonstrated that blood flow to the right medial temporal pole, orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex differs between partisans and non-partisans as they made decisions in the previously mentioned game. These regions are associated with socially relevant <a href="https://radiopaedia.org/articles/temporal-pole?lang=us#:~:text=The%20left%20temporal%20pole%20is,and%20socially%20relevant%20memory%202." target="_blank">memory</a>, decision <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbitofrontal_cortex" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">making</a>, and goal-related <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/ventrolateral-prefrontal-cortex" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">responses</a>. Previous studies have also shown them to be essential for <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-08/uoe-tbo081020.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">social connections</a>. </p><p>This demonstrates that the brains of non-partisans approach non-political problems differently than the brains of <a href="https://www.studyfinds.org/democratic-republican-voters-have-different-brains-than-nonpartisans/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">partisans</a>. Future studies may go further, and see if other brain functions differ between the two groups. </p><p>The study is not without limitations; there were a mere 110 test subjects overall. However, given the general lack of research on non-partisans, the study is still an excellent starting point for further research.</p>
What does this mean for politics?<p>Lead author Dr. Darren Schreiber laid out his interpretation of the data and offered takeaways:</p><p> "There is skepticism about the existence of non-partisan voters, that they are just people who don't want to state their preferences. But we have shown their brain activity is different, even aside from politics. We think this has important implications for political campaigning – non-partisans need to be considered a third voter group. In the USA 40 percent of people are thought to be non-partisan voters. Previous research shows negative campaigning deters them from voting. This exploratory study suggests US politicians need to treat swing voters differently, and positive campaigning may be important in winning their support. While heated rhetoric may appeal to a party's base, it can drive non-partisans away from politics all together."</p><p>He references a variety of studies on the effects of negative campaigning. It is widely agreed that it drives down <a href="https://pcl.stanford.edu/research/books/goingnegative/" target="_blank">turnout</a>.</p><p>A variety of studies suggest that differences in political opinion relate to the differences in the brain. While these studies can't tell us how to solve our various political problems, they can offer us ways to help bridge the gap. People who don't leap at the opportunity to join political clubs must be interreacted with differently than those who do to encourage their involvement. While this may come as a shock to seasoned political junkies, it may also come with benefits to our political discourse. </p>
The proposal calls for the American public to draft two candidates to lead the executive branch: one from the center-left, the other from the center-right.
- The #Unity2020 plan was recently outlined by Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor, on the Joe Rogan Experience.
- Weinstein suggested an independent ticket for the 2020 presidential election: Andrew Yang and former U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven.
- Although details of the proposal are sparse, surveys suggest that many Americans are cynical and frustrated with the two-party system.
A recent survey also found that political messaging from the pulpit increased the likelihood of believing presidents to be ordained by God.
- Evangelical support of President Trump has baffled many who find his conduct at odds with core Christian values.
- A recent survey found that 49 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe Trump was chosen by God.
- Additional data found evangelicals are mixed on his moral character but view him as critical to political victories.
For non-Trumpists, one of the most baffling qualities of his presidency is the overwhelming support received from evangelical Christians. A record 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than George W. Bush, and that support has grown into a fervor over the years.
As Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," told Big Think in an interview: "This makes no sense to people, especially when you consider that Trump is not just the most irreligious president in modern history. His entire worldview makes a mockery of core Christian values like humility and empathy and care for the poor."
While Jesus taught humility (Philippians 2:7), Trump is braggadocios. While Jesus taught us not to covet earthly possessions (Matthew 6:19), Trump built his reputation on worldly riches. While Jesus taught his followers to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), Trump tweets vitriol at his opposition.
So how can so many Christians support two men with diametrically opposed worldviews? The answer is multifaceted, but a recent survey may have found a crucial element in understanding this ostensible discrepancy. According to the results, a healthy number of evangelicals believe Trump to be anointed by God.
A divine mandate
Two graphs showing how church attendance increases the likelihood that someone will believe all presidents (blue) or Trump (orange) were anointed by God. The graph on the left shows the survey's 2019 results, the right its 2020 results.
Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge, associate professors of political science at Denison University and Eastern Illinois University, respectively, noticed a spate of pastors, pundits, and politicians exclaiming Trump to be God's chosen one. To pick one example, televangelist Pat Robertson has claimed that Trump received a mandate from God.
"I think, somehow, the Lord's plan is being put in place for America and these people are not only revolting against Trump, they're revolting against what God's plan is for America," Robertson said during a February 2017 broadcast of "The 700 Club."
The two sociologists wanted to see if such beliefs were widespread among America's Christians or just the hyperbolic musings of ratings-hungry talking heads. In May 2019, they surveyed just over 1,000 church-attending Protestants and asked them two questions: First, did they believe all presidents were anointed by God; Second, did they believe President Donald Trump was specifically anointed by God?
In their sample, about a third of white evangelicals agreed that Trump was ordained by God to win the 2016 election. Djupe and Burge also found that as church attendance increased, so did the percentage of those who agreed with both questions.
For example, among white Protestants who attended church less than once a month, only 9.4 percent agreed that Trump was anointed by God. But among white Protestants who attended church more than once a week, that number leaped to 29.6 percent. When Djupe and Burge looked specifically at Pentecostals, they found 53 percent connected Trump's presidency with divine design.
Djupe and Burge ran their survey again in March 2020, asking the same questions to a quota-sampled cohort that matched the previous study in gender, region, and age. As with the previous study, they released their research as a teaching resource on their blog, Religion in Public.
They found belief in Trump's anointment had risen across their sample, again increasing in proportion with church attendance. Among white Protestants who attend church once or more a week, belief in Trump's anointment rose to 49.5 percent. Their sample also showed a rising belief that all presidents were anointed.
Other surveys have shown similar results. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans, not just church-attenders, about God's role in recent presidential elections. They found that 32 percent of the more than 6,000 respondents, a sizable minority, believed Trump's election must be part of God's overall plan—though only 5 percent of those respondents believed God chose Trump because of his policies.
The survey found similar opinions regarding Obama's election, suggesting a not insubstantial belief that God involves himself with American elections but remains fiercely nonpartisan.
The political pulpit
A graph showing how political speech from clergy correlates with increased belief that Trump was anointed by God. The correlation proved strongest among Republicans.
Evangelicals believing God chose Trump may go some way in explaining their support of him, but it doesn't relieve the perceived cognitive dissonance between Trump's values and those of core Christianity.
In his interview, Reza Aslan argued Trumpism had become a cult for fundamentalists. For these fundamentalists, Trump became a warrior under the auspice of God to fight on behalf of evangelical beliefs. A "salvific character" to worship, as Aslan put it.
Bruge and Djupe don't go so far as to call Trumpism a cult; However, their data back the idea that Trump's rise can be linked to defensive circling against perceived threats and repeated messaging.
"We were quite surprised by the result that 49 percent of those frequently attending worship services believed that Trump was anointed by God to be president," Bruge and Djupe told Fox News in an interview. "At least until we examined the evidence that suggested religious and secular elites continue to claim that Trump has a religiously significant role to play."
The sociologists also asked their 2020 respondents whether they heard clergy mention political topics at the pulpit. They found a strong correlation between church attendance with political messaging and a belief in Trump's anointment among Republicans (see the above graph). That correlation was not as strong among Democrats or Independents.
Belief in Trump's anointment similarly climbed if respondents heard messaging that Democrats threatened rights and liberties. When hearing such arguments, even Democrat Christians were more likely to agree in Trump's anointment.
"We are not the first to note that right-wing media are having a profound effect on public opinion, serving to insulate Trump supporters," Burge and Djupe write. "We are some of the first to document how this is built and sustained from the bottom up. That is, political churches, among Republicans especially, reinforce the argumentation that is also coming from above."
They conclude, "But it is important to see that this is not just an evangelical Republican problem. The religious significance of the presidency is swelling across the board for the religious, indicating further polarization along religious and partisan lines is continuing."
The King David defense
As for Trump's moral conduct, evangelicals don't maintain the cognitive dissonance that Reza Aslan and other non-Trumpists perceive would be necessary. The same 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that white evangelicals were mixed on Trump's personal conduct and moral qualities—with only 15 percent agreeing that the phrase "morally upstanding" described Trump well.
Where there is more agreement, however, is the belief that Trump's administration is on the evangelical side of the culture war. Fifty-nine percent of white evangelical Christians believe that the Trump administration has helped their interests, and 63 percent say their side has been winning politically, which according to Pew is "triple the share who said this in May 2016, six months before Trump's election."
Rick Perry summed up this worldview last year when he told Fox News: "Barack Obama didn't get to be the president of the United States without being ordained by God. Neither did Donald Trump." He added that God has used "individuals who aren't perfect all through history" such as King David and King Solomon.
In the evangelical mindset, support for Trump isn't a moral inconsistency. They perceive the President's moral character to be lacking in fiber, but still believe he was chosen to fight the good fight with the blessing of God's will.
Whether that fight matches the will of the people, we'll have to wait until November to find out.
How religion changed the presidency—and vice versa
Why the effects of aging are detrimental to being the U.S. president.
- As there's a minimum age, there should be a maximum one.
- Aging causes decline in numerous cognitive skills as shown in numerous studies.
- Older candidates are less likely to support new ideas, technologies and societal changes.