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Considering the influence of Facebook on the 2016 US presidential election

In order to consider the influence Facebook had, if any, on the 2016 US presidential election, I will be analyzing the social media site in two different ways. Firstly, I will explore how the existence of Facebook as a platform allowed the spread of information and misinformation (Fake news) during the lead-up to the election. I will analyze how this spread of information affected citizens and if ‘news’ on social media (real and fake) was enough to influence their decisions when voting. Secondly, I will delve into the effect of the collection of data by Facebook. Focusing mainly on the Cambridge Analytica case study in which tens of millions of Facebook users’ data was harvested and used to micro-target individuals in an attempt to influence their decisions when it came to voting. By analyzing Facebook in these two different ways, I will attempt to understand if a social media site can have a real-world effect as immense as influencing who the next president of the United States will be.

As social media has grown massively in its influence, politicians have started to look at it as a more viable way of reaching possible supporters. For example, in the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump spent $44 million on Facebook ads1, which is 12.9% of his total campaign budget2. This significant spending on Facebook ads alone shows how trumps team saw Facebook as an effective way of campaigning and according to one study it increased the probability that a non-aligned voter would vote for Trump by 5%.3

Politicians now seeing Facebook as an effective and even essential tool to reach citizens arguably shows its influence. With two-thirds of American adults now going to social media as their main news source 4, it is no wonder politicians are putting increasing funding into online voter targeting. I would argue Facebook’s influence on society and its citizens is immense and as a platform, it does have the power to influence voter decisions. Out of the two-thirds of adults using social media as their primary news source, 43% of those primarily use Facebook.5 In a study, 21% of a sample of American adults claimed Facebook was the most frequently visited site for politician information, the most popular site after this being Fox News, Fox news is the most popular news channel in America and only 6.3% of this sample said this was their most frequently visited site6, demonstrating how popular Facebook is as a news source. Users can also be targeted by political ads more precisely using the data collected on them by the site, increasing possible influence on voters.

However, ‘truthful’ political ads and credible reporting on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election were not the only information voters were exposed to. This period of time saw a large increase in ‘Fake news’, misinformation spread across Facebook regarding politicians and events which were important to the election.

Content posted online is subject to much less scrutiny than traditional reporting and theoretically, anyone could make up a fake news story along with a website and Facebook page supporting it. This relaxed quality control and relative ease in which information can be made to look authentic creates an opportunity for fake information to be easily spread and endorsed, with research showing false information is 70% more likely to be shared than true information (Vosough et al, 2018). Although ‘fake news’ was a common term in the run-up to the election, “Exposure to deceptive messages is not tantamount to belief in them” (Garret 2019, p.2). The question must be asked that even though many Americans may have been exposed to fake news information on Facebook, was it enough to actually influence their decision-making when voting? When choosing to vote an individual makes a choice on what they believe, so surely constant exposure to fake information could change their judgment if these news sources seem reliable?

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This has been subject to large debate in the period post-Trump election in 2016, with people arguing exposure to fake news on Facebook played an important role in his success whilst others arguing against its effectiveness. A Study was conducted in the USA in the 1940s called “The Peoples Choice”, assessing the effectiveness of political campaign propaganda on citizens (Lazarsfeld et al 1948). Findings suggest that citizens tend to use a “host of strategies to protect and reinforce their predispositions” (Garret 2019, p12). This study is used here by Garret to argue that the effect of fake information on voters is little due to pre-existing positions meaning that they will maintain beliefs and attitudes even when exposed to propaganda (fake news). However, although individuals such as Garret use this study to support their argument against the effectiveness of fake news, this study was conducted in the 1940s. Since then the world has changed, including how this propaganda reaches citizens, today being through social media, namely Facebook. This change in platform I would argue changes the receptiveness of fake news as individuals are now being targeted much more precisely and much more frequently than they would have been in the 1940s, increasing effectiveness.

Facebook not only provided a platform for information, real or fake, to be shared but also facilitated extreme micro-targeting of voters. I will be focusing on how Cambridge Analytica (CA) used the data from Facebook user’s profiles in order to effectively target Facebook users with political ads in the run-up to the election.

Cambridge Analytica was a data collection and political consulting firm that came to light during the Facebook Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Dubbed a ‘full-service propaganda machine” (The Guardian 2018), they aimed to do extreme micro-targeting of individuals for political campaigns. They aimed not just to target individuals as voters but to target them as personalities, they did this by creating a detailed psychological profile in order to better target them with ads. These profiles were created through the use of data collected from Facebook. Apps were installed by users which gave permission to collect all that user’s data, such as likes, and status updates, and even had the power to read some private messages. These apps not only gave permission to read the data of the person who installed the app but also gave permission to harvest everyone on the friends list information, without them knowing or giving permission. This meant they only had to get the app installed by a few hundred thousand people to reach the data of tens of millions of users, by 2015 CA claimed to have collected data on 220 million Americans7. With this information collected from Facebook they could build detailed psychographic profiles which meant the ads you were seeing would be tailored specifically to you. With the profile, they could learn what kind of messages you would be susceptible to, including how to frame the ads, what topics and content to include, and what kind of tone to write in to get you to engage. They also had enough data collected through Facebook to learn how many times they would need to ‘touch’ you with an advert to change how you think. The reach this company had was scary, to say the least, and it was only possible due to Facebook. Users were unaware their data was being harvested which was then used by powerful algorithms to target them in ways they could not understand. This was a powerful tool which I argue had an effect on voters’ decisions as the targeting of them was so specific and detailed. The use of CA I believe definitely had an effect on the 2016 election, therefore Facebook also had an effect on the election as they facilitated the creation of CA through the data used by CA on Facebook users.8

Social media as a whole in today’s society plays a huge part in people’s lives, with the majority of people in the modern world using social media in some form. People use it to socialise, connect and as mentioned before a large majority of adults use it as a news source. People are constantly exposed to social media and the relative freedom of the internet means anyone can share or create information that has the possibility to be shared by possibly millions of people. Therefore, when attempting to consider the effect Facebook had on the election, it is useful to look at how social media as a whole influences individuals. It plays a huge role in the lives of people today and I would argue it deeply influences people’s lives in many ways, positive and negative.

The information available on Facebook, in some cases, would have little effect on some individuals but to others would have had the opposite. Especially when it comes to fake news, some people will actively question information they are exposed to whilst others accept it as truth. The misinformation spread around Facebook in the lead-up to the election contained “propagandist elements” which likely activated “heuristic rather than systematic psychological information processing” (Khudejah, Khawaja, 2020). As I referenced earlier, during the election Facebook was seen as a political tool to effectively reach potential voters. Politicians saw the possible influence they could achieve through its use, spending millions of dollars on political adverts on the site. Voters were also precisely profiled and then targeted through Cambridge Analytica, a dystopian tool that could predict user actions with the ultimate aim of changing their decisions. All of this was made possible through the use of Facebook data.

I would consider the influence of Facebook significant in the 2016 election, it was a new battlefield for political opponents and allowed the spread of real and fake information and targeting of voters in ways they couldn’t fathom. The heavy usage of Social media in today’s society meant citizens had constant exposure to Facebook, which I think without a doubt had an effect on their decision-making.

    1. Garret Kelly – KG., 2019. Social Media’s Contribution to Political Misperceptions in the U.S. Presidential Elections (Online), p1-13. Available from – https: journals.plos.orgplosonearticle?id=10.1371journal.pone.0213500 – Accessed on 301220

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