The 2016 Election Relied on Tech More Than Ever. Which Is Bad.

November 8, 2016

10:30 am

“As long as it’s on Facebook…people start believing it. It creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”

That’s none other than sitting U.S. president Barack Obama, speaking in Ann Arbor just yesterday. When even the president is complaining about the negative impact of social media, you know it’s a problem. The advertising dollars on Facebook, often indifferent to the truth or lies behind the articles that drive their pageviews, have monetized Facebook attention.

It’s working for them: Facebook has made out like a bandit.

Facebook Made $17.9B Over Nine Months

While the majority of ad spend goes to Google (well over $60B), Facebook’s revenue has risen sharply, even as newspapers — digital and print both — have plummeted. The full chart is available in this post from Kevin Anderson, which sums up the reality: Google and Facebook offer more targeted engagement.

Brands can locate specific demographics. But so can politicians.

How Trump’s Campaign Relied on Social Media

Trump took advantage of the current media setup to gain national attention: By appealing directly to a demographic that loved fear-driven idology, he was able to lock down an authoritarian voter base more concerned with their feelings than the facts. The only way to reach them was social media. Once any given story picked up enough momentum on social media, the traditional outlets were force to report it, ethically and finanically, as Mathew Ingram explained for Fortune:

“What Trump figured out was that by avoiding traditional media channels, he could create a much more direct connection with potential supporters, many of whom already had a healthy mistrust of the media. The more the media criticized and attacked Trump or his allegations, the more his fan base supported him.

In almost every case, whether it was “dog whistle” statements about race aimed at currying favor with neo-Nazis, or comments about how the Democrats created ISIS, Trump’s message was not designed to fit into the traditional candidate-media relationship. It was designed to subvert it.”

So how specifically did social media promote fear and lies this election cycle? Here are two main ways.

Facebook Pages and Twitter Trolls

Facebook already massively influences how many people get out to vote. But the partisan pages on Facebook also supercharge election opinions that are best left ignored. Facebook’s political meme machines, as I’ve already covered, have an outsized impact:

“A political meme page gets hundreds of thousands or sometimes millions of followers, and then pushes out links to sleazy, ad-packed websites. The page “Make America Great,” operated out of St. Louis by 35-year-old online marketer Adam Nicoloff, earned over $30,000 in revenue this last July, with operating costs of $8,000.”

Also a factor: The trolls on Twitter. There are very few of them, but they contribute the majority of the abuse and hate speech on the service. From a recent Wired article on the dark side of tech:

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets sent between last August and this July, a whopping 60 percent of them in reply to journalists. But while this spike could easily be construed as a widespread increase in anti-Semitic sentiment, the survey also showed that just 1,600 accounts generated 68 percent of the tweets.”

Facebook’s Next Move?

Vox, in yet another article on the subject, makes a clean-cut case for what the media company should do in response:

“There are a lot of specific things Facebook could do to improve the average quality of the stories its readers see. But Facebook’s first step is to admit that it is, in fact, a media company, that the design of its news feed inherently involves making editorial decisions, and that it has a responsibility to make those decisions responsibly.”

For their part, Facebook has admitted that they need to address the issue, saying they “understand there’s so much more we need to do” and that they will “keep improving our ability to detect misinformation.” And, given enough bad press, perhaps they will.

Either way, this election cycle has made it clear that there is a problem at the root of modern social platforms.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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