In a contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election, social media proved to be the most important factor. How important? Brad Parscale, who was Trump’s digital director for the campaign, stated that Twitter was important, and that Facebook was “100 times more important”. Why was, and is, Facebook so important? Social media allowed (and still allows, despite the obvious conflict of interest) Donald Trump to reach out to his supporters, and they reached back in the form of millions of dollars in donations. In fact, he is still using social media to get donations for his 2020 re-election PAC fund, which is currently being used to pay the dozens of lawyers for him and his staff.
Social media, Facebook in particular, also allowed “dark ads”, which are paid advertisements tailored to specific segments of account holders. For instance, if I wanted to create a Facebook advertisement promoting myself as a political candidate, I could specify that the ad would only be shown to white males on Facebook between 21 and 45 who live in the Midwest. These “dark ads” aren’t commonly known, but many of us have seen them. Many of these ads weren’t used to promote anyone, but they were used to portray people in an extremely negative fashion, and either outright lied or exaggerated the truth. Most of them depicted Hillary Clinton as a corrupt traitor who worked with foreign powers and terrorists to undermine our democracy…which, ironically, was what Donald Trump exactly did to secure the election.
The election itself was extremely close. Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote (and winning it with the second highest ever number of votes), lost to Donald Trump in electoral college points. Here in Michigan, Donald Trump only won by a little over 10,000 votes, which is an extremely small number in a presidential election.
As for Twitter, Oxford University released a study of how voters in Michigan were manipulated by “fake news” on Twitter. The researchers found out that the fake news was much more prevalent than real news, and hit its peak of manipulation one week before the election. Could this have been the difference in Michigan, where Trump only won by 10,000 votes? It certainly played an influential part.
Here is the study, in PDF format:
Now, we have learned that “Russiagate” head investigator Robert Mueller obtained a search warrant for all Facebook ads that were linked to Russia, in particular a Kremlin-linked company called the Internet Research Agency. Facebook alone has reported over 3,000 of these ads in the past 2 years, but this number is believed to be exponentially higher. This was a mutually beneficial relationship: Facebook made extra money, and political operatives in Russia were able to manipulate people on Facebook without being traced, for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising, and they could use blatant lies that could not be easily traced to their creators.
We have already learned of the vast manipulation that Russia had undertook to undermine the 2016 election. All U.S. intelligence agencies, and intelligence agencies across the world, have said this. In fact, the only people denying any Russian manipulation are…Russia, and Donald Trump’s administration.
Of course, these intelligence agencies (in particular, “5 Eyes”, an alliance of the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand) were already monitoring all communications that were suspected to come from Russia, long before the 2016 campaign even started. This type of social media manipulation has been going on for many years. The Cold War technically ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I would argue that it never really ended. We now have a new Cold War, which is being fought with the Internet. Instead of nuclear weapons, we now have computers to fight asymmetrical warfare.
As citizens, we are only scratching the surface as to what we know about voter manipulation through social media. I would wager that within the next year, we will learn the disturbing truth: that social media and “backchannel” communications were instrumental in securing the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In fact, I already believe it.
It has been rumored that Mark Zuckerberg may actually run for president in 2020. At this rate, he will be lucky not to be charged with any crimes for his complicit actions as the head of Facebook.