Social media in national elections (2016)
In the United States 2016 presidential election, social media had influence over voters' perceptions and decisions regarding both candidates' campaigns. Suspected hacking and interference by foreign actors lead to a post-election investigation by the U.S. government. Technology became a tool used by all sides of the campaigns and hackers. Terms like “fake news” became everyday vocabulary. Social media sites got pulled into politics, with CEOs crafting statements on political influence that months before they were unaware they possessed. The tangible consequence of technology when used as a tool was felt around the nation. Since 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating the potential ties between Russia, Donald Trump, and the election. Out of this investigation, social media has risen as a primary tool used by the Russians to perpetuate false information.
A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research claims that just one-hundred and fifty-six certified false news stories about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were shared over a combined 38 million times on social media sites.
Internet Research Agency
One primary actor that has arisen from Mueller’s investigation is the Internet Research Agency, a Russian, state-sponsored operation. In February, Mueller charged the IRA for perpetuating false news articles online. Through an undercover reporter, it was discovered that the “social-media department” pulled images from online to create fake profiles, and the “department focused on English-language content” went as far as to hire “a prostitute that resembled Hillary Clinton” to act in a video.
This agency was not created just for the 2016, however. The IRA had been acting in the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014. Andrew Zakharov, a Russian journalist, spoke The Washington Post about his investigation of the IRA, one that paralleled the investigation of Mueller. With an “American department” that only employed 90 people, Zakharov emphasized how the IRA took pride in their ability to create such widespread influence and panic within American politics.
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Not all of those hired by foreign actors to spread false information about the election did so for political reasons — the draw to work for these actors for many came from the fact that news articles that go viral generate more advertising revenue. Social media supports the “small-scale, short-term strategies” of those who wish to spread false information, who are not concerned about “building a long-term reputation for quality.”
Twitter itself saw “50,000” Russian linked accounts.(6) A report by Politico details how such Twitter bots are able to have such influence. These bots are relatively inactive accounts until they are called into action — at that point they begin frequently tweeting political buzzwords, stolen pictures, and links. They tweet in clusters, promoting hashtags and interacting with real, active Twitter accounts.
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Blame and Response
As the investigation into possible collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Russian actors continues, numbers surrounding the number of fake-accounts linked to Russians and articles that are proved to be false have demonstrated how widespread the use of social media sites were to election meddling. After Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, released a statement about Facebook’s use by hackers. Facebook breaks down how social media inherently supports the spread of false information due to the opportunity for “global reach” and “amplification.” Actors whose goal was to create havoc and political divide during the election utilized what Facebook named as “targeted data collection” to learn about influential personas and topics, “content creation” to create fake news, and “false amplification” to disseminate this fake news. Twitter, whose lack of verification for accounts has lead to the creation of thousands of automated robot accounts that tweet hashtags and link en masse, claimed it was working to “crack down on bots.” However, Colin Crowell, the Vice President of Public Policy at Twitter, said it was not the company’s responsibility to police “whether a Tweet is truthful or not.” In late 2017, Twitter was expected to comply with Congress on investigating election interference.
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