With the 2020 United States election looming—political ad campaigns featuring candidates have been circulating non-stop on the Internet. In the past, media platforms like newspapers, radio, and television were the go-to mediums for airing political ads but in recent years, using virtual mediums has become more common and now with the pandemic—political campaigning through social media has exploded to unprecedented levels.
According to Kantar, the amount of money spent on 2020 political campaigns is estimated at $7 billion. If we break this down, it will amount to $3.5 billion in spendings for broadcast TV campaigns, $1.8 billion for digital media, $1.2 billion on cable TV, and $500 million on radio.
Unlike TV or print ads, social media ads are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This lack of regulation gives social media platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter the freedom to advertise whatever they want, whenever they want. So even if you do not want to be exposed to the fake or skewed advertising, you have no way of avoiding it because it’s not regulated.
In October 2019, President Trump’s people released a video targeting Joe Biden. The video claimed that Joe Biden had promised funds to Ukraine in exchange for firing a prosecutor who was involved in the investigation of a company that had ties to Biden’s son, Hunter. Naturally, Biden objected to this ad and asked media outlets to remove it—Facebook refused to do so. Twitter, on the other hand, banned “all advertisements about political candidates, elections and hot-button policy issues … in response to growing concerns that politicians are seizing on the vast reach of social media to deceive voters ahead of the 2020 election.”
Fast forward to October 2020—Facebook says they will ban US political ads indefinitely after polls close on Nov 3. Unfortunately, this means that Facebook is still providing an opportunity for deceptive ads to stay on the platform and influence the masses until voting is complete. Just like in 2016, Facebook will play a huge role in influencing the results of this election.
Bots, Aggregators, and Foreign Influence—Oh My!
A large percentage of Facebook’s user base are bots and aggregators which are meant to manipulate political opinion—so are distorted political ads the biggest problem at this point? According to the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, during the November 2016 U.S. election, the use of automated pro-Trump accounts was deliberate and strategic throughout the election. For example—the largest botnets for Trump on Twitter consisted of 944 bots, compared with 264 bots for the pro-Clinton tags. These bots were also strategically placed in an attempt to sabotage and colonize pro-Clinton hashtags.
Also, let’s not forget the influence of foreign entities on U.S. elections. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica created psychological profiles of 230 million American voters which were overseen by Steve Bannon who would then go on to become Trump’s White House advisor. Then there was the secretly recorded broadcast in which the suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica said that behind the 2016 Trump victory, was a significant role of a UK-based political consultancy’s online campaign.
This brings us to this question: Is there a way to properly manage politics on social media? If the algorithms that manage traffic on centralized social media networks are built to influence, then it seems the only solution is to remove the algorithms and go direct social.
The highly automated nature of news feeds on social media platforms make it easier for political actors to manipulate these networks for their gains. In Russia for instance, half of the Twitter conversations originate from highly automated accounts, so much so that many do not even realize they are merely chatting with bots.
We tend to think of the social media platforms as a means of connecting with people—but the lack of regulation, fact-checking, and accountability on these platforms (especially Facebook) makes them susceptible to abuse. If nothing is done to rectify the situation, you can be sure that many of your future life decisions will be made by software.