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Can Social Media Influence Elections?

Hey, everyone! Welcome to Episode 17 of the Darn Good Life Podcast. I am your host, Danielle Roberts. And today, we’re gonna get a little political…but not in the sense you may think. You’ve heard me mention before that I have a decade-long career in social media. I like to think I have a unique understanding — or an edge, if you will — of how various social media work.

So in today’s episode, we’re going to discuss how just how Facebook puts information into your newsfeed, what’s happening behind the scenes to influence your opinion as we get closer to election day, and steps you can take right now to make sure you’re getting the most full story possible.

Hello, everyone. Thanks for being here with me today. I don’t know about you, but I am completely over reading through the endless comment threads and political arguments in my social media feeds.

I see the same arguments and rebuttals over and over again, the senseless name calling, and I want nothing more than to delete my apps because I’m watching our country get ugly. Alas, I can’t delete them, since it’s part of my day job. But I figured I might as well apply my skillset and use this as opportunity to educate anyone out there who wants to feel as educated and empowered as possible when they vote for president in November.

Anyone out there who is close to me knows where I lean when it comes to political views, but I’m not here to get into that today. I’m going to keep my political affiliations completely out of this for the purpose of the greater good, even though I have strong opinions based in research.

Whether you’re a democrat, republican, independent or whatever, I am here to help you better understand the information you’re consuming via social media and exactly why and how you’re being fed that information.

For all intents and purposes, we’re going to focus on Facebook today, but I want you to keep three things in mind:

  • The first: a lot of the principals I’ll be talking about here also apply to and translate to many other social media platforms.
  • The second: social media platforms are designed to keep you on them. They want you to stay on their app and not go elsewhere.
  • And finally: Americans vote on emotion.

In my opinion, social media is the biggest shift our country has seen since the industrial revolution – it has quite literally revolutionized the way we interact with one another.

We’re consumed by the likes, comments, and shares. We’re consumed by clearing out the red bubble notifications that pop up. It is literally an addiction (shameless plug, if you haven’t already, go listen to Episode One, where I talk about how technology has led to a culture of consumption). So it’s no wonder we can’t look away when Boomers and Millennials are going at it in the comments.

But anyway…it’s a double-edged sword: on one hand, technology has given us the ability to be better informed than ever — so long as we do our research and look to trusted, reputable sources; on the other hand, things like social media platforms have become so advanced that we are easily distracted and, therefore, manipulated.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had a front-row view to this. I’ve witnessed how Facebook has evolved. Every post or social media ad out there is a unique combination of strategy, creativity, technology, and data. And today, we’re going to focus on the technology side of things.

In other words, I’m going to walk you through why you experience what you do when you log in. We’re going to talk about algorithms, ads, and content types.

Algorithms

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Americans get their news via social media platforms. What they might not realize is that the news they see is heavily filtered.

That’s because of algorithms, which is a fancy type of machine learning, which is a fancy technological term that basically boils down to this: Facebook uses your previous behavior (aka, the content you like, comment, share, and interact with) to figure out what you’re interested in, and then surfaces more of that content in your newsfeed.

Remember how I said before that social media are designed to keep you on their app? This is why. Facebook wants to keep you in a never ending, thumb-scrolling flow by giving you photos, articles, etc. that it knows you will interact with.

This algorithm used to be called EdgeRank. It has thousands of different factors that play into it, and it’s customized to each individual user. So what I see when I log in is completely different than what you see when you log in. But in general, we can classify Facebook’s algorithm in three categories:

  1. Recency, or time decay. This basically means that you have to post regularly to stay relevant. If you haven’t posted in a month, the next time you post, fewer people are likely to see it.
  2. The number of engagements: This basically means, the more likes, comments, and shares that a post has, the higher it will show up in someone’s newsfeed. This is what happens when posts go viral.
  3. Affinity: Your online relationship with others. For example, if you like and comment on my posts all the time, the more likely it is that my next post will show up in your feed. If you never interact with my stuff, Facebook is more apt to hide me from your feed.

The Facebook Pixel & Ads

Ok, but that’s not all. Now we need to talk about the Facebook Pixel and Facebook ads. Brands and businesses didn’t always have the ability to spend money to advertise on Facebook, but that’s how Facebook leveraged its user base and their addiction to monetize and become the 800lb. gorilla that they are today.

So when brands first created pages, people could go like those pages, which was basically them opting in to seeing that brand’s posts in their newsfeeds. In the beginning, we used to see posts from so much stuff.

Then it started to get cluttered.

Now, companies and businesses are lucky if two percent of their followers see their posts at any given time. So, if you have 100,000 fans, only 2,000 will see a post you put up.

Facebook did this intentionally because they wanted brands to start paying to play. In other words, they said, give us money to boost your post or run this campaign, and we’ll show it to more people. Otherwise, move out of the way for the people who will open their wallets.

But even that’s not enough. So many people advertise with Facebook that they wind up bidding against each other. So then, they had to optimize their campaigns to better appeal to their target audience.

This is one of the reasons why they created what’s called the Facebook Pixel, which is a small line of code that can be placed on any website to track people who visit that website and can later be used to serve those same people ads. Have you ever gone online shopping to log into Facebook to find an ad for the exact product you were looking for only hours later?

That’s because of the Facebook pixel.

Content

And the final point of importance, is the way that posting content is actually crafted for the algorithm to favor.

In other words, Facebook LOVES video and photo. And so do we – because visuals translate to the brain 60,000 times faster than plain text. They create a lasting impression on voters.

But they’re often short, or edited.

And the post copy or headlines, aren’t necessarily aimed at the truth, and Facebook doesn’t have any prerogative to fact-check. There is no journalistic integrity. If you take one thing away from this, you need to understand that social media platforms like Facebook do not make it a priority to prevent the spread of misinformation.

It’s quite the opposite, actually. Everything you see is meant to get you to click and engage.

Don’t forget that Mark Zuckerberg is worth 96 billion dollars, has participated in multiple Congress hearings, and is well-affiliated, controversially, with several politicians. He has a duty and a responsibility to be involved in this process, and to stop the spread of misinformation.

So, now that you know all of this, what does this mean as it relates to politics and how can you cut through the clutter and noise and falsities and bullshit that you’ve been letting influence your opinion over the past several months, or longer?

When you click accept on Facebook Terms & Conditions, you have no idea what you’re agreeing to. I certainly don’t. We have no idea how our information is being used or how it’s being shared.

“I now accept the terms and conditions” has to be the single lie that every single one of us tells. Yet we do it for the sake of convenience.

So what does all of this mean for the political process? Social media gives candidates the ability to bypass the news media as a gatekeeper. It surfaces content that lacks any type of journalistic integrity. It’s an excellent tool for selective information and deception.

If you only ever like articles from Fox News, you’re only going to see articles from Fox News and similar outlets.

If you only ever like articles from CNN, you’re only going to see articles from CNN and similar outlets.

If you only ever interact with posts about Blue Lives Matter, you’ll never see what someone who is part of the Black Lives Matter movement sees in their feeds.

Brands and businesses with agendas can literally run ads that target you with complete falsehoods.

This is creating so many blindspots and causing division unlike ever before. It’s magnifying selective bias. It’s perpetuating conspiracy theories and diverting attention away from the heart of issues that are affecting people’s lives every single day. Just because it doesn’t happen to you, does not mean that it doesn’t happen or that it isn’t real.

We have to pay attention to the news sources we look at and ensure they are as unbiased as possible.

If you’re going to use social media as a news source, the first thing you can do is go like and follow people and businesses that are completely opposite from you and what you believe in.

Next time you log into Facebook, look for the ads that show up in your feed and ask yourself why they wound up there: What sites did you visit? What Facebook pages did you like?

Do you only see white people in your feed? If so, seek out Black people and People of Color.

Do you only see posts from your Republican high school classmates? Go give your Liberal college friend’s political post a like or comment.

Start diversifying your feed so you get the most comprehensive view possible to empower yourself to make an educated decision. Engage with the intention to understand, not with the intention to be right or self-righteous, or to act like a five-year-old with the name-calling.

The next thing you need to do, is to add non-partisan fact-checking websites (check out Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, and Snopes.com) to your bookmarks and use them every single time before you take a Facebook post at face value – even from a news outlet like FOX or CNN. Remember, news outlets also have agendas to keep people tuned in and watching. Op-Eds are not facts; they are opinion editorials. When you’re reading an article, click through to other articles that are hyperlinked to get to the source of where the information came from in the first place. Lean on scholarly research and peer-reviewed sources.

But the key here is to fight your initial instinct emotion for the greater good of our society. Ask yourself: What might I be missing? What do I not experience on a daily basis that others do? How can I help?

I beg you to hold yourself to a higher standard this year. If not, I strongly believe that our country is in serious trouble – like, on the bridge of collapse-type trouble.

We need to lean toward compassion and understanding rather than play into the divisiveness that the government wants. I know when I vote this November, I’m not voting for what only makes sense for me, but for the people who need my help and support.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful and that you feel empowered to educate yourself in a way that you haven’t before, now that you know what happens in the background of social media.

And don’t forget: Life is short, so do your best to make it a darn good one. Always remember that it shows some serious strength to change your opinion when presented with new information, so go out there and learn something new today. I’ll catch you next time.

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Hey, I'm Danielle!

I’m a multi-passionate, queer entrepreneur, coach, and podcast host obsessed with personal development and the relentless pursuit of building a life that I love.

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