Facebook users have long complained about the company’s lack of responsiveness to fake posts that may have played a decisive role in the 2016 election, seemingly to deaf ears.
Now the shoe is on the other foot: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has become the target of some of the online disinformation visitors to his site have long been subjected to.
A short video clip circulated on Instagram last week, professing to show Zuckerberg bragging about having “total control of billions of people’s stolen data … all their secrets, their lives, their futures.” He then adds that “whoever controls the data, controls the future.”
Another widely-viewed fake video that went viral last month showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been slowed down to make her appear drunk and slurring. In both cases Facebook, which owns Instagram, decided not to remove the altered videos, instead opting to heavily reduce their circulation.
Both incidents highlight the degree to which disinformation remains a serious problem for Facebook in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Since 2016, the company has been at pains to point out the work it has done to ensure that the platform is not used to spread disinformation and fake news – including making U.S. political advertisers verify who they are, hiring additional fact checkers and banning bad actors from its site.
But advances in technology, coupled with the lack of federal Big Tech regulation, means that the specter of disinformation continues to loom large. Add to that Facebook’s importance as the preferred way for some candidates to connect with huge segments of the voting public, and more cases of digital fakes seem almost inevitable.
“I anticipate that we will see new and different sorts of disinformation and political targeting using Facebook in 2020,” Samuel Woolley, director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future, told ThinkProgress.
“We’re already beginning to see early stage examples of social groups giving public statements designed to confuse, polarize and disenfranchise. It’s likely that Facebook will take on more of role than ever before.”
“Broadly speaking, we’re seeing a revolution in the political use of technology… as a means of scaling or amplifying political communication and I don’t think this is going to stop,” Woolley added.
“Facebook answers to its shareholders and there’ve been signal changes that have been made but I still believe Facebook is more concerned with optics than stopping the flow of disinformation.”
The problem already reared its head during the 2018 congressional midterms. In a study analyzing those elections, the non-profit Institute for the Future found that even in the absence of major interference like the Kremlin-backed efforts seen in 2016, propaganda used social media to “manipulate, threaten and divide groups.”
The research found that “young people, the elderly, military veterans, and those for whom English is a second language… were often particular targets for disinformation and harassment.”
Two factors further exacerbate the danger of disinformation in 2020. The first is simply how endemic Facebook, and digital media more broadly, has become for Americans.
According to Tech for Campaigns, the average American now spends six hours a day on digital media, with Facebook the second most widely used online platform among U.S. adults according to recent polling by Pew Research (YouTube comes first with 73%).
While traditional outreach methods such as TV ads and direct mail remain tried-and-true avenues for reaching out to voters, the variety of ways in which it’s possible to connect on Facebook means it’s ideally suited for candidates trawling for votes.
“Facebook is the go-to platform not only because of how many Americans but because of the different ways you can use it,” Tara McGowan, CEO of ACRONYM, a progressive nonprofit organization that tracks digital spending, told ThinkProgress.
“It’s become a platform where people can live their lives on, and smart campaigns take advantage of that. It’s not simply transactional you can organize, fundraise and really engage supporters day in, day out.”
A second factor is who the candidates have in their sights. The Trump campaign has invested significantly in targeting elderly voters — according to Axios, nearly half of its Facebook advertising budget, 44%, is being used to target those over the age of 65.
Meanwhile, Bully Pulpit Interactive, which has been tracking spending by Democratic candidates, found that 83.2% of digital spending by current front-runner Joe Biden (D-DE) has been directed towards people over the age of 45, compared to 61.4% for Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and 37.4% for Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The decision by Biden and Trump, however, to target older voters on Facebook may have an adverse effect; in January, research in the journal Science Advances found a strong correlation between age and the propensity to share fake news. According to the study, American Facebook users over the age of 65 shared fake news articles at a rate of nearly seven times that of users between the ages of 18 and 29.
“It’s no surprise to me that Biden and Trump are focusing their efforts on older voters because they’re more likely to vote, but there’s also a danger we could repeat some of the mistakes made in 2016, if social media companies continue to allow [candidates] to target people based on age,” Woolley said.
“I have a strong opinion that Facebook’s ability to allow political campaigns to target particular voters is really problematic, because it basically allows unfettered connection to voters without any oversight.”
The Trump campaign has made a big bet on Facebook for bolstering its 2020 chances, which is perhaps unsurprising, given the degree to which Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s current manager and digital manager four years ago, boasted about how the social network site allowed the campaign to surgically and cheaply target voters during the 2016 election.
With Facebook, “the audiences were there. The people were there. The people we needed to touch [were there],” Parscale said during an interview with PBS Frontline last year. “There was probably no better way to — per dollar — connect with them other than Facebook,” he said.
According to Bully Pulpit Interactive, Trump so far has laid out about $9.5 million on digital advertising since January – more than Warren, Biden, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Pete Buttigieg (D-IN) and Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) combined. Of that spending, roughly 60% percent ($5.9 million) is being used on Facebook, with the rest going towards Google.
Of the Democratic candidates, only Biden has approached Trump in digital spending — and even so, he lags far behind the president. The former vice president, who announced his White House run in late April, so far has spent approximately $1.6 million on digital advertising, $800,000 less than Trump for the same period, but $765,000 more than Warren, his closest competitor.
McGowan cautioned against viewing Trump as some sort of digital behemoth, despite Parscale’s boasts.
“They’re very much doubling down on the 2016 playbook which isn’t a bad thing, but I do believe that underdogs have a competitive advantage,” she said, suggesting that it may be somewhat foolhardy to assume that what worked four years ago necessarily will yield the same results next year.
“These platforms change constantly. There are new ways to communicate. There’s always a risk in scaling an approach from years ago,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet beyond the fact they know people put their information on Facebook.”
And, as analysts of the online ecosystem point out, it’s one thing to pour money into social media advertising, and quite another for that money to make voters feel like they’re “connecting” to the candidate.
That’s a reality that could negatively impact Trump, who as president, can no longer rely on his outsider status in making his appeals to voters. But it could also negatively impact Biden, who politically speaking, is a product of an earlier — and decidedly analog — era.
“We’ve seen Trump prove he can give a perception of authenticity and we’ve also seen politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez use social media in a more native way,” said Woolley, invoking the freshman House lawmaker from the Bronx, who has become a digital sensation with her bold policy proposals and fluent command of social media.
Ocasio-Cortez also has cultivated an image as a fresh-faced and outspoken, unvarnished truth-teller, a persona that has endeared her to legions of followers, but that might not translate so readily among the 2020 contenders.
“[Among] the Democrats, as things stand, the leading candidates have failed to use authenticity to promote closeness or that feeling of closeness,” Woolley said, adding “They have to connect more with the voters, rather than remaining aloof.”
Both Sanders and O’Rourke have managed to convey an aura authenticity, according to Woolley. He also singled out Warren, who has been surging in recent polls, as someone who has managed to make her policy-wonkery seem relatable.
“She seems more comfortable in her own skin and she’s doing more to draw attention to strengths and promote those strengths and that’s a good tactic for her,” Woolley said. “If she can get voters to come to terms with the fact that she is a policy wonk and academic candidate, she might have a good chance.”
McGowan agreed that an increased societal reliance on social media has left politicians scrambling to seem as likeable and relatable as possible to voters — with varying results.
“The bar for authenticity is really high on social media and you can tell when someone is reading scripted lines and not feeling comfortable in front of an iPhone,” McGowan said.
“I liken it to the Nixon/JFK debate – to see the candidates unscripted like that had a great impact. It’s a challenge because political communication used to be very controlled, and now the way we communicate is the opposite.”
“Being very quick to pick up on moments in the media, those can really go a long way,” McGowan added. “Engagement is breaking through the noise and giving people something sticky to engage with. Campaigns set up to be nimble and creative are set up to take advantage of that. If you need three different people to approve a tweet you’re not going to be running an authentic campaign.”
Both Woolley and McGowan, however, remain concerned about the lack of governmental oversight on social media. They said Facebook, like some other tech platforms, has basically taken it upon itself to self-police its platforms, but there are effectively no limits to the ad buys candidates can make on the site, unlike an earlier time when ad buys were limited by the amount of available air time on television and radio.
“There was a limited inventory with TV and radio and now it’s pretty much unlimited,” McGowan said. “If you have money to spend and political organization there are so many different avenues you can take. We don’t live in a simple information ecosystem.”
Congress, meanwhile, seems either unwilling or unable to come to terms with the best way to police social media platforms to protect the public from misinformation. This point was highlighted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent refusal to pass a comprehensive election security bill.
“The biggest failure that I’ve seen beyond the failures of social media has been the failure of the federal government to make any steps to attempt to mitigate any further misuses of social media,” said Woolley.
Absent action from the U.S. legislature, the next best hope he said, rests with oversight agencies like the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Election Commission, although neither is seen as a particularly rigorous watchdog.
“We need organizations like the FTC and FEC to step in and oversee this stuff,” he said. They are bound to take more aggressive action, however, than Facebook has been willing to undertake as it polices itself.
“It’s frightening,” Woolley said, “that we’re relying upon a company that failed the American public in 2016 to step up and be [essentially] in charge of Democratic communications.”