You have a friend, let’s call her Sue. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, she was leaning toward voting for Hillary Clinton. Sue thought it was about time we had a woman president and besides, the alternative was a creepy reality TV star.
But Sue spends a lot of time on facebook. As the election approached, she read a lot of bad things about Hillary Clinton. Some of those things just showed up in her feed, others were shared by her friends. These things were false and they were planted by Russians who wanted Donald Trump elected president. But Sue doesn’t have a lot of time to read newspapers or watch the TV news, so she didn’t know those things were false. She wasn’t about to vote for Trump, but she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton after all the bad things she had read, so she stayed home. And Vladimir Putin got the president he wanted.
One of the most important and chilling things I’ve read in years is this article in the Washington Monthly about facebook and its algorithms. Algorithms are the mathematical formulas that determine what you see and what you don’t see in your facebook feed and on other social media. They help advertisers target you. If you forward a lot of recipes on facebook, you will probably see ads in your feed for kitchen gadgets.
A little lesson in mass media. When my radio station runs an ad for a place that sells snowblowers, a lot of people hear it, millions, I bet. But some of the people who hear it just bought a snowblower this fall and don’t need one right now. Some of the people who hear it live in apartments where the landlord takes care of snow removal. So while a lot of people hear the ad, many of them aren’t going to buy a snowblower under any circumstances.
What does facebook sell? If you answered “advertising” you’re wrong. They sell YOU to advertisers. But with their algorithms, they can make sure a snowblower ad gets seen by someone who just posted “my snowblower broke” on facebook. Social media make it very inexpensive to target only the customers you want and none of the ones you don’t. The same algorithms that are used to sell products can be used to sell candidates and political storylines. Russian-controlled interests figured this out and were able to target anti-Clinton and pro-Trump messages to where they would have the maximum impact. On radio, all political ads must say who has paid for them. Those rules don’t apply to social media, so you won’t see “paid for by pro-Trump Russian mobsters” on that little hit piece about how Hillary Clinton gave away America’s uranium while she was running a child porn ring out of a Washington pizzeria.
Democracy is poorly served when voters are not able to determine the truth or know the origin of the messages they’re being fed. Fake news, indeed.