Retweets, Hashtags, and Political Campaigns
Retweets, Hashtags, and Political Campaigns
“Delete your account,” Hillary Clinton tweeted at Donald Trump – and over 700,000 people liked and retweeted her.1 Trump’s cutting response, “How long did it take your staff of 823 people to think that up--and where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?” received over 300,000 likes and retweets. In the modern era of presidential elections, social networking sites give voters mass access to personally follow and interact with their candidates online. Approximately one-third of registered voters who follow a political candidate online say that they do so to feel more connected to that person.2 Voters also use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to receive real-time campaign news and express their political views. During the 2016 campaign season, approximately 128 million people engaged with the U.S. presidential election on Facebook, generating 8.8 billion likes, comments, posts, and shares.3
Social media is the dark horse of 21st century elections. Prior to 2004, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Snapchat did not exist. However, these relatively young companies quickly rose to prominence and now dominate political communications.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have allowed American voters to engage in political conversation not only within their network, but also with the general public and the political candidates themselves. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to use social media platforms to communicate with voters, and was successful in his efforts.4 By November 4, 2008, Obama had almost 3,000,000 Facebook fans, which equaled almost four times as many Facebook fans and 23 times as many Twitter followers as John McCain. His campaign circulated news clips and celebrity endorsements on YouTube, and YouTube viewers watched a collective 14 million hours of Obama-centered videos during campaign season. Obama’s campaign used social media not only to raise issue awareness, but to solicit grassroots donations and volunteers. Obama’s use of social media helped him achieve celebrity status among millennials and connect with underrepresented groups of voters.5
Obama was not the first politician to pioneer a new medium of electronic communications. In 1932, presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt used the newly invented radio to communicate with voters on a more personal level, therefore engaging voters who could not read or lacked access to a traditional print newspaper.6 The radio allowed Roosevelt to control his publicity messaging and reach out to Americans across varying backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. In 1960, the newfound popularity of television helped candidate John F. Kennedy gain an edge over his opponent, Richard Nixon. The charismatic Kennedy captured American attention during a historic televised debate, and then subsequently used popular culture and television appearances to appeal to voters.7 The capitalization of technology in politics dates back decades, as wise politicians use contemporary measures to appeal to voters.
In the present day, social media provides a low-cost platform to disseminate political information, in conjunction with traditional advertising and news sources. During the 2016 election, social media platforms enabled less traditional candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to foster strong social movements among voters with relatively few fundraising dollars.8 Social networking sites have allowed candidates to gain attention and go viral, and American voters are able to use their digital media accounts to support causes and organize civic participation.
However, even with the influx of digital political communications, voter participation has not significantly increased. Just under 139 million people, or approximately 60.2% of eligible Americans, voted in the 2016 election, which is roughly consistent with previous modern presidential elections.9 Still, while there are many factors that may influence voter participation, social media may have some effect.
During recent elections, Facebook offered an “I Voted” sticker on their website, allowing users to notify their Facebook friends that they had voted. Facebook found that users were marginally more likely to vote, and share the “I Voted” sticker, if their peers were also doing so. During the 2010 midterm elections, 20.04% of the 61 million users who saw their friends were voting, also clicked on the “I Voted” sticker or a polling-place link. The “I Voted” stickers directly mobilized almost 60,000 voters, and the social effect of the stickers indirectly encouraged approximately 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.10
President-elect Donald Trump first tweeted the term “fake news” on December 10, 2016, and by the six-month mark of his presidency, had tweeted the phrase approximately 73 times, or once every three days.11
Trump was not the only one buzzing about “fake news.” While “fake news” can describe any deliberately untrue news story that could deceive people, the concept developed a popular and highly political connotation in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
Approximately 32% of Americans say they “often” see made-up political news stories online, and 23% of Americans even reveal sharing a false news story.12 Of the 23%, approximately half of respondents disclose sharing a story that they knew was fake at the time. The spread of fake news comes at a time when American adults are increasingly turning to social media as a news source. In 2016, 62% of American adults reported getting news from social media, and in 2017, 67% of American adults reported getting news from social media.13
Following the 2016 election, researchers Hunter Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow discovered 115 erroneous pro-Trump articles and 41 erroneous pro-Clinton articles that received a total of 30 million and 7.6 million Facebook shares, respectively.14 False news articles were widespread during the campaign season, and overwhelming alt-right.
Some of the most egregious examples of fake news originated from the small Macedonia town of Veles, where bizarrely enough, over 140 residents had registered fake news domains. One such domain, WorldPoliticus.com, incorrectly claimed that Hillary Clinton would be indicted for her emails, with a headline screaming “Your Prayers Have Been Answered.”15 That story gained over 140,000 shares, likes, and comments on Facebook. The 140 Macedonian websites published almost exclusively alt-right and pro-Trump articles. While the Macedonian creators of the websites did not actively support Trump, they sought the Google AdSense revenue that their sensational stories brought in. For them, the more clicks, the better.16
Even before Donald Trump’s upset victory, rumors had floated about Trump’s friendship with Vladimir Putin, and of Russia’s possible interest in the U.S. presidential election. The U.S. Intelligence Community soon substantiated some of the reports, and discovered that the Russian government had sought to sow political division in the United States and tamper with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
On October 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that the Russian government had tampered with the election by hacking U.S. email servers and leaking their contents.17
Additionally, on January 6, 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia had promoted fake news articles on social media.18 ODNI released a report that President Putin had ordered an influence campaign to promote Donald Trump, vilify Hillary Clinton, and undermine the American democracy.19 The Internet Research Agency (IRA), 20 an organization with ties to the Kremlin, had run approximately 3,000 political ads on Facebook using fake accounts. Approximately 29 million U.S. users had seen IRA-specific content on their Facebook news feeds, and up to 140 million U.S. users may have seen Russian-affiliated content on their Facebook or Instagram news feeds.21
On February 13, 2018, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the 2018 midterm elections are a “potential target for Russian influence operations,” and that Russia may continue to use propaganda and social media to mislead American voters.22
On March 16, 2018, Facebook released a statement that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica, a political data analytics company, from the social media platform.23 In the following days, numerous media outlets informed the public about Cambridge Analytica, which had allegedly collected personal data from Facebook users to influence voters during the 2016 presidential election.24
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg will soon testify before Congress on Facebook’s data privacy policies and Cambridge Analytica. The announcement of Zuckerberg’s testimony comes at a time when many Americans are beginning to ask questions about data privacy. Traditionally, social media companies have not faced major privacy legal restrictions in the United States. However, Facebook’s response to Cambridge Analytica will only signal the beginning of a discussion to find an ethical approach to big data and privacy, especially in the face of electoral integrity.
Many Americans are still attempting to understand the events leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and electoral security and privacy will be crucial questions for future elections.
In the wake of the election, Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John McCain (R-AZ) pushed for the Honest Ads Act, which would require digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to publicly reveal campaign advertiser information.25 These senators argued that a higher level of accountability is needed to ensure free and fair elections.
On March 14, 2018, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) proposed regulations surrounding digital political advertisements.26 The regulations are currently open for public comment, and the FEC will hold a public hearing in June 2018 to discuss the proposals. While the FEC will probably not finalize the proposed regulations in time for the 2018 midterm elections, it is possible that new rules will come into effect by 2020.27
Since the 2016 election, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have twice testified before Congress about their actions to combat Russian and other potentially extremist content on their platforms. Google has pledged to only allow U.S. nationals to purchase U.S. election advertisements, and to improve identity verification of election advertisement purchasers.28 Facebook has also promised greater transparency and verification for campaign advertisement purchasers, and is strengthening their machine learning and content review abilities.29 Likewise, Twitter committed to increasing the transparency of election advertisements and reducing incendiary tweets.30 YouTube has invested in machine learning algorithms to flag terrorist content before they are viewed by anybody online.31 Despite these efforts, government officials, including members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, call upon social media companies for further explanation and action.
History has demonstrated that social media can have positive effects on democracy and free speech, but 2016 remains a cautionary tale. Technology has given voters both a voice and a greater stake in the election. While technology companies are working to independently secure their platforms from fraudulent and divisive content, some lawmakers are considering legislation. As voters and technology users, we should be a part of this conversation. Democracy and innovation are core American values, and we as a nation need to consider both as we move into 2018, 2020, and beyond.