Platform Update: How Social Media Changed for the 2018 Midterms

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TL;DR: It’s been the Wild West on social media ahead of elections but platforms are making significant changes in an effort to protect users from false and misleading content.

Today’s advanced technology is creating new threats to election security beyond your standard malware, adware and ransomware. We’re now seeing hackers disseminating messaging on social media to influence public sentiment and even leveraging artificial intelligence. Digital propaganda has forever impacted the way that the public perceives news and the level of scrutiny that social media posts endure. Is that a bad thing? That depends on your position.

State of Chaos

The average social media user or, essentially, 77 percent of our general population in the United States, would likely be in favor of regulations, which protect their privacy and improve transparency. Conversely, the effect of recent changes has on brands and consequently the economy is yet to be determined but is (probably) bleak.

The term “fake news” has proliferated social media websites for the past three years. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are playgrounds for trolls and fake accounts spreading misinformation. These fake accounts are often controlled by radical groups sometimes in other countries. They’ve launched what they call "influence campaigns" to propagate fake news and radicalize voters — preying on their political affiliation by posting inflammatory content. This drove the social media landscape into a place of discontent and a state of continual flux. Facebook recently said “bad actors” in Russia reached a whopping 126 million users through ads.

77 percent of our general population in the United States would likely be in favor of regulations which protect their privacy and improve transparency.

Protecting Your Thoughts from Foreign Interference

In an effort to return its original mission, Facebook moved to a “meaningful interactions” update earlier this year, prioritizing posts from friends and family in users’ news feeds over publisher content. Concurrently, Facebook created features allowing users to customize their news feed with new options like “See First.” Although the algorithm change was an unprecedented shift for many publishers, there are ways to cut through the clutter (and the baby photos).

Facebook released a statement this summer announcing the results of an investigation on leads discovered through a United States Department of Justice indictment identifying a Facebook Group with roughly 4,000 members created by Russian government actors. Approximately 290,000 accounts followed at least one of these Pages created with the purpose to launch deceptive ads targeting users and presumably, U.S. voters. TL;DR: if you’re still spending any time on Facebook you’ve probably seen your great aunt Betsy comment or share this content before.

A similar sight was to be seen on Twitter ahead of elections until now. As Americans have been gearing up to make their voices heard in the midterms, Twitter released a statement in October, revealing that in earlier this year they rolled out election labels for midterm candidates to inform users which accounts were officially tied to politicians. The platform has also offered additional support to candidates for assistance and security. Twitter had already begun cleaning house by clearing fake accounts in summer 2018 following a New York Times' investigation into the selling of fake followers to build online presences. Though positioned as restoring integrity of the platform, foreign entities also used Twitter to manipulate U.S. voters. Most recently, Twitter reported that 9 million tweets came from one Russian troll farm to spread propaganda.

Transparency is more important now than ever before and social media platforms are taking action. This summer, Facebook and Twitter both launched transparency tools for advertising that will make all ads on the platforms visible to users whether they are included in the targeting or not.

Advertising transparency on social media has been growing at an accelerated rate as #ad and #sponsored are now required to be included in captions of sponsored influencer posts to meet Federal Trade Commission guidelines on Instagram. By allowing users to easily see ads run by their favorite Pages it should be easier to weed out fraudulent content.  

Facebook and Twitter are working to ensure we live in a connected world but also a honest, democratic one. This is one tough job and one we’ll be anxiously watching every step of the way.

Social Media is Now (Literally) Driving Users to the Polls

It’s not all bad news: Social media platforms from Facebook and Twitter to Lyft and Tinder have launched initiatives to encourage users to vote in the upcoming midterms. Whether you grab a free ride on Uber or "Swipe the Vote," know that these platforms are more aware of the microscope they’re under and are making changes to protect you as technologies (and hackers) become more advanced.

The only question left is: How much social media platform involvement is too much involvement in our elections? Should there be a separation of social media and state? Take your opinion to Twitter (Just kidding).

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