I’m in rainy Vancouver this morning, which feels a long way from Washington, D.C., the epicentre of next Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections. While they’re a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump, the midterms will also be a check on how misinformation campaigns have fared on social platforms since the 2016 election—and a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Canada’s 2019 federal election.
Any analysis on this topic has to focus on Facebook. It remains the most effective marketing tool in human history, which political operatives are increasingly using not just to micro-target you with ads, but also to micro-target you with facts.
I asked Craig Silverman—the BuzzFeed reporter who coined the term “fake news” and who’s covered online misinformation campaigns since their beginning—for an assessment of how the midterm campaign has gone thus far. He told me that Facebook has done a lot to eradicate the economic incentives that infamously led Macedonian teens and others to create fake news pages for financial gain. But a far darker and conspiratorial tone has taken their place, led not by outsiders but by the political actors themselves.
“Some falsehoods do not spread as much, but overall, the ground war is so permissive now that broad conspiracies are starting to draw in large numbers of the population,” Silverman said.
He attributes these worsening misinformation campaigns to domestic political operatives laying the groundwork in three areas: the “beating-down” of the media, the “demonizing of immigrants” and the elevation of vast conspiracies.
In other words, the genie is too far out of the bottle.
“The platforms have taken meaningful steps to reduce the amount of organized false content spilling over their communications channels, and it’s still worse,” said Ben Scott when I asked him for his assessment of the campaign. Scott is the director of policy and advocacy at the Omidyar Network, and has advised both the Obama and Trudeau governments on the internet and society.
In this week’s excellent “Frontline” PBS special, “The Facebook Dilemma”—which I highly recommend—early Facebook investor Roger McNamee outlined how the platform’s business model was designed from the start to reward polarization. It did that by “appealing to people’s lower-level emotions, things like fear and anger to create engagement, and, in the context of Facebook, more time on-site, more sharing, and therefore, more advertising value.”
Scott told me the engagement model described by McNamee and coveted by Facebook can be measured in three ways: First, how many people are being exposed to the content? Second, how often are they seeing the content? And third, what is the intensity of that engagement?
According to Scott, it is the third measurement that we don’t discuss enough. It is in that emotional intensity, combined with the ability to micro-target facts, where the power truly lies.
For example, Scott recounted the story of an online survey in Texas where voters were given a list of 10 issues and asked to pick the three that were most important to them. Researchers tracked not only which options the voters chose, but also how fast they chose them, and found that immigration was selected within three seconds. No other topic came close.
“[Immigration] is such an intense issue that people will vote for a candidate on it, no matter whether [voters] are inconsistent with the candidate in the rest of the rankings,” said Scott.
This type of intense engagement is what leads people to vote—which is why campaigns try and use it to their advantage by targeting messages that will get people to the polls. But it’s also what makes people weaponize social media. And with troops deployed to the Mexico-U.S. border and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, it’s easy to see how quickly the distortion of facts for political gain can turn into real hate with deadly consequences.
“[Misinformation] is a phenomenon that is directly accelerated and agitated by political leaders. That may be the explanation for why it’s so bad in social media in terms of hate speech, despite the fact that platforms have done things to try and make it better,” said Scott.
We’ve spent the past two years focusing on the geopolitics of Russian election interference. However, the misinformation campaigns during the U.S. midterms have demonstrated that, while foreign influence is certainly not to be ignored, it is domestic campaigns that may be far more dangerous.
All of this means that although Canadian election officials are rightly concerned about the foreign influence on misinformation in next year’s Canadian election, they can’t overlook that it’s too often political parties themselves—and those working on their behalf—who may have the more lasting impact in fueling polarization, fear and hate, all in an effort to get out the vote.
Stéphane Perrault, head of Elections Canada, told iPolitics this week that he’s “quite optimistic” about the integrity of the next election.
But it remains to be seen whether Canada can fend off this two-pronged war. So far at home, there seems to be little appetite to hold political parties to account for how they collect and use voter information. Politicians and interest groups on all sides are already ratcheting up the rhetoric on Twitter.
And, as Silverman notes, Canada also remains vulnerable to attack from abroad.
“Justin Trudeau is the face of global liberalism, and so he is going to be the primary target,” he said, adding that it will be challenging for Canadian election officials to navigate misinformation campaigns and still appear impartial.
No matter where the misinformation campaigns originate, Scott believes they’ve come to the stage where we’re at risk of eroding the very nature of democracy itself.
“The entire rule book of democratic self-government is that you present ideas in good faith with evidence behind them and try to persuade the public that your views are in their interest more than your opposing candidates,” he said.
“If there is no common fact base and there is no premise of fair and honest argument in the public sphere for most of the people most of the time, you can’t have stable democracy. You’re going to have wild turbulence and volatility.”
A depressing outcome, no matter what the results are on Tuesday night.