The Role of Social Media and Big Data on the American Political Landscape

Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

In todays society we are surrounded by technology everywhere we go. When we go to the supermarket we check ourselves out at the self-service kiosk, or download digital coupons. When we are at work we use computers for everyday business operations, or even use phones through the pc vs. having a physical phone on the desk. We use technology to get from point A to point B. It is a magical time to be alive and our lifespans are increasingly growing due to the advent of modern medicine. Technology tools are being ever woven into the fabric of our lives. When we walk into the house, we simply can say “Alexa, turn on the living room lights,” and Alexa will acquiesce to our request and voila, the lights are on. In addition to all of the wonderful things technology can do or how it makes our lives easier, it also plays other major roles in society. One of the threads that is woven between technology and our lives is how technology can make an ever growing world small by connecting us interpersonally over the internet. Through the use of software applications like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, we can connect with people like never before. These applications have become known as social media.

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Social media is everywhere and is readily accessible. Social media applications are easily accessible via the internet using a computer and now are even easier to access through their mobile applications. The mobile applications or “apps,” are easily download to a mobile device from places like the Google Play or Apples App store. These mobile apps are also accessible to be used on tablet pc’s and in some cases do not even require the user to have a mobile data plan, merely access to the internet.

Once downloaded the user is required to sign up for the service by creating a user name and password, and accepting the user policy that the company has created. This creates a problem. Legally the company is laying bare to the user what is and is not acceptable for the user to use or how to use the service, but also what the social media company can do with your information. Simply put, the dos and don’ts of what can happen with your data is written in front of the customer plain and simple, or is it. Companies purposely use legal jargon and create user policies that are incredibly long and detailed. This serves two purposes. One is to protect the company legally, the other is to confuse the user and make them give up reading until they just click accept. Many in the online community would simply say TLDR (too long didn’t read). In our modern world, the TLDR generation or even most normal people simply agree to the terms without actually reading the policy and thus do not understand their rights and how their data may be used. This has now become the norm and we as users of modern technology are trading our personal data for something we view as valuable or that can make our lives more convenient. We the users of applications must become more self-aware of how our data is being collected and more importantly on how it is being used.

Social Media websites were created out of a need to be connected to one another and share our lives and experiences with our friends and family. Facebook was founded in a college dorm room and was used to connect college classmates to one another. Facebook organically had access to very personal information on all of its users. It was designed that way as part of its purpose. Users share data on who their friends and family are, pictures, where they live, work, or even what, when, and how they are doing something. In some cases a Facebook user can be geographically traced. There is a lot of very powerful information being shared through Facebook, and this makes it a target of advertisers and political parties.

The potential of that personal data was increasingly enticing to political parties. In 2004 the Bush campaign began exploring the idea of gathering voter data through Facebook and exploiting that data for political gain. This was never fully realized during that campaign, but the Obama campaign of 2008 built on what was learned in 2004. By the 2012 election cycle the Obama administration had figured out how to exploit Facebook and it’s users to gain a political advantage.

During the 2016 presidential election cycle the Trump campaign used information gathered by data analytics firms to target users on Facebook for political advertisements. In addition to the campaign foreign countries also disseminated fake news through the social media giant that influenced how users viewed the candidates for office.

Political data analytics has advanced from simple micro targeting to a true data science with the ability to predict outcomes. Some of the leaders in the field of data analytics are using massive amounts of data and complex models to determine a way to appeal to large amounts of the electorate and convert undecided voters. The Trump campaign understood who their core supporters were and were hoping to sway undecided voters to the Trump side (forbes).

In the run up to the 2016 elections the campaign had hired a third party vendor in order to analyze voters on Facebook and evaluate those users’ friends and family to be targeted by ads. The company the Trump team hired was Cambridge Analytica. In 2014 Cambridge Analytica began stealing user data from Facebook. However, how they did it wasn’t illegal.

Cambridge Analytica was able to gather Facebook user data on an estimated 50 million users. How they did this was completely legal, yet once discovered, had ultimately violated Facebooks user agreement (recode). Cambridge Analytica hired a British researcher that created a pc application that was able to allow the tech company to access the user data (independent).

Facebook has various technology tools that allow software developers flexibility in their designs when they develop new applications. One tool that Facebook offers to developers is their login tool. This works in developers favor when creating a new application because the user can log into the new application by using their Facebook login and not have to create a new login specifically for the new app. Many of us have seen this in action. Anytime we log on to an app many may offer the choice to login using Facebook.

The downfall for the user when using Facebook login is they unknowingly grant the app’s developer access to their information from their Facebook profile. This is how their data becomes compromised. The new app gathers information like the users name, location, emails, friends list, or even in some cases education level, or career.

Cambridge Analytica hired Dr. Aleksandr Kogan which created an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” This app utilized the Facebook login and was able to gather data on

270,000 users (recode). Once this information was gathered they were able to, because of an old Facebook user policy, gather data from those users’ friends lists. When all totaled over 50 million people were affected. The data that was gathered by Kogan included information regarding places of residence and other pertinent information that allowed the company to build psychographic profiles for all 50 million users. (Recode)

This in and of itself is not illegal or even problematic. However, it did become an issue when Kogan shared the data that was collected with Cambridge Analytica. This violated the Facebook user agreement and became an issue, because users were not aware that their data was being retrieved and sold to outside vendors.

After the data breach of Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg was called before congress to testify before a joint Senate Committee to answer questions about the breadth of the breach. Zuckerberg testified that Facebook didn’t do enough to prevent the breach and that fake news was widely distributed across social media. He went on to testify that foreign interference and hate speech was disseminated throughout the platform as well.

Cambridge Analytica used the data captured to target certain users of the social media platform with various ads whether fake or real to influence their voting habits. After digging into the 2016 election the Senate was able to discern the role that fake news played on Facebook users whose data was taken by Cambridge Analytica. It is reasonable to think that fake news contributed to help Trump win the election.

Social media helped to drive fake news. Social media drives users to fake news sites more than it drives people to legit forms of media with journalistic integrity. “More than 40% of visits to fake news sites come from social media redirecting, compared to around 10% of visits to 690 top US news sites, according to a 2017 study by researchers from NY and Stanford”(npr). Because of this more than one-quarter of voting aged adults’ visited a fake news website that supported either one of the major candidates in the election.

In the months leading up to the election, the top fake news stories had more shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook than the top 20 real news stories. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the fake news stories reached more people than the legit news stories, however it is enough to think that for some people this may have changed the narrative. Fake news can confuse people, turn them away from politics, or influence their vote. It is troubling to think that moderate voters can be convinced to swing wildly to the liberal side or wildly to the conservative side based on news or stories that are not true. It has been proven by researchers that the more people see a fake news story the more they begin to believe it. (NPR)

Cambridge Analytica compromised over 50 million Facebook users’ data and fake news was wildly distributed throughout social media during the 2016 election. The Trump campaign was able to use this to their advantage to help swing the election in Trumps favor. They were able to use various instances of fake news and social media in a number of ways. The campaign used Facebook ads, and bolstered Facebook engagement in those ads to get them to go viral, integrated their campaign with the social media company, had Facebook staff work alongside the campaign, and let the users spread their support across the spectrum. (Independent).

Facebook released data that Russians associated with a group known as the Internet Research Agency purchased ads on Facebook to distribute divisive content. Messages sent out by the group promoted Donald Trump and suggested that African American voters should not support the democratic candidate for president. Overall over 10 million people viewed the ads on Facebook, but only about 450 thousand saw them before the election. This played a minor role in election decisions because of the limited distribution (indepentant).

The group’s activity was largely aimed at more organic strategies. They posted things on Facebook and hoped the posts would go viral vs just directly running targeted ads. The group also used the social media giant to organize and promote events in order to bolster attendance at rallies and tried to antagonize the voter base. (Independent).

Another way that Trump used the platform to his advantage was to get Facebook on board. Facebook was able to connect voter files to behavior based on the website and tailor ads to be able to target individuals. Facebook promised to use its power to help influence voters one way or the other. “Brad Parscale, who managed Mr. Trump’s digital efforts, has touted the campaigns use of Facebook repeatedly” (independent). He shared that 80 percent of the digital ad budget was spent on the media giant. The campaign used ads and tweaked them according to the reactions online. They were then able to adjust the message in the ad so that it would appeal to the most voters in a positive way. In addition to this idea, the group also had Facebook staff advise them how to maximize the tools to be able to reach more people and increase donations.

However, with all of the ways the Trump team used Facebook, probably the most influential aspect of the site was Trumps supporters themselves. The website allows users to spread their ideas, their likes and dislikes to a large amount of people. When an ad would run, if the watcher liked the ad they would share it. This would allow their followers to see the ad for themselves and either like or dislike it. This is a powerful tool in the ability that it is a quick way to share those ads organically without the campaign having to push the ads themselves (independent).

After the 2016 presidential election, companies and non-profits are creating tools to educate the electorate in order to prevent false news, or even identify political ads on Facebook. Propublica is an independent non-profit online news group that specializes in investigative journalism, covering a wide range of topics from government to technology, and the justice system (crowdsourced). In September of 2017 the group launched a new tool to help combat fake news, targeted political ads, and inform the electorate of where the ads originated.

The tool is known as the Political Ad Collector, or PAC for short. PAC is an extension that is downloaded and added to your web browser and uses algorithms to calculate the likelihood that the ad is a political ad. The algorithm uses similar technology to spam blockers, but instead of classifying something as spam, it will classify ads into political vs. non-political. When the user logs into Facebook from their web browser the add-on goes to work. When it identifies an ad as political, it gathers data from the ad. It records the date that the ad appeared, content of the ad, and the Facebook ad identification number (crowdsourced). In addition to the before mentioned information it also gathers data on how many times the ad has been liked and the comments on the ad. The tool also collects data on who the ad is targeting such as the average age and location of the users viewing the ad.

Propublica is planning on making sure the tool is used extensively during the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. Currently the non-profit is testing the tool in other countries and aiding news organizations internationally to assist with their elections. After running testing scenarios internationally they will be able to fine tune the system in order to be accurate when then mid-term election cycle begins in the United States. Once fully launched Propublica will house a database containing all of the political ads it identifies for users to be able to cross reference (crowdsourced).

Throughout the 2016 U.S. election cycle Facebook and social media platforms played a huge role in disseminating information to the masses. No longer are traditional television ads as pivotal as they once were. In the future, candidates running for political office are sure to use social media to energize their base. The data that is available through social media outlets is and will continue to be a powerful tool. After the last election cycle campaigns are going to be more careful how they collect and use data, but they will continue to use social media services to their advantage. It is our responsibility as users to understand how to best protect our personal information and avoid being exploited for political gain.

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