Marianna Spring, a correspondent working for the BBC, has been conducting a little experiment for the past two months.
Here is what she did.
She setup five very different social media profiles. Each represents a distinct view from the political spectrum. These profiles all got accounts on all the usual platforms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc… She then proceeded to engage via each with stuff that fitted the profile that she had created.
Here are her five …
- Larry: followed and liked pages that supported the US Second Amendment and liked pages about Republican figures, as well as Fox News
- Britney: followed pages on social media opposing billionaires and abortion, liked lots of content that was very supportive of former President Donald Trump
- Gabriela: main focus was her local Hispanic community in Miami and the current economic crisis; she has liked lots of groups and pages about saving money on monthly shopping, as well as fashion and music
- Michael: followed a lot of teaching unions and charities, as well as prominent politicians linked to the Democratic party. He followed news outlets like CNN
- Emma: followed a lot of accounts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental activists, as well as women’s marches and LGBTQI rights.
Once these were up and running, and having seeded the algorithms across these platforms, the idea then is to start following the trail of breadcrumbs laid down.
What then happened, who was targeted?
Side Note: This was not a wholly scientific experiment, nor is it truly representative of everything going on out there. It is perhaps more akin to sticking your finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Having said that, I will add that it is a fascinating little test.
None of these profiles started with “friends” or “followers”, nor did they have a deep social history. In fact, they would have all just appeared on social media with no friends. You would perhaps expect a human looking at them to immediately be suspicious.
What is perhaps far more interesting, and of course the point of this exercise, is to see who was then targeted with a stream of blatant disinformation.
Was it all of them, none of them, some of them?
What do others say is going on out there?
There exists the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) who, like many others do, look into what is going on out there across the various social media platforms.
They will focus on some very interesting insights like these …
- why do conspiracists claim terror attacks are being faked?
- Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover “likely” to worsen hate and misinformation on the platform
- Russia Today (RT) Arabic and unofficial outlets are winning the information war in the Middle East
Their specific insight is that in the buildup to Nov 8, election conspiracy claims and also abuse targeting politicians has been ramping up.
Well yes, in other breaking news, apparently the Pope is Catholic and Bears … oh come now, you know the rest.
But back to the question – who amongst those five BBC fake profiles was groomed.
Before the reveal, hit pause and take a quick guess …
- Fox News Larry?
- Trump loving Britney?
- Florida based Gabriela who likes fashion and shopping?
- CNN Michael?
- BLM Emma?
They discovered that it was Britney the Trump fan who got most of the violent and misleading content.
Marianna lays it out like this …
When setting up her account, I liked pages and accounts that supported Mr Trump, opposed mandatory vaccination and questioned the motives of billionaires. These topics appear to have been a gateway to more extreme content, when compared with the other undercover voters …
When I logged onto Instagram in particular, I found she was recommended more and more accounts that made false claims about fraudulent voting and denied that President Biden won the election.
They regularly featured hashtags like #Trumpwon in their profile descriptions and on their posts, and shared memes about the riots on the Capitol claiming that “January 6th wasn’t an insurrection”.
Britney’s profile was also shown TikTok videos from accounts promoting conspiracy theories that the election was rigged, also repeating the phrase “Trump Won”.
Last week, Instagram showed her conspiracy theories contradicting the police account of what happened when Paul Pelosi, the husband of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was violently attacked in their home. Posts also made light of the violence.
Finally, pages recommended to Britney’s Instagram account also featured posts talking about female politicians in abusive and misogynistic terms.
The most frequent targets were Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. There were comments about them performing sex acts, and slurs about their appearances, alongside criticism of their politics. While posts often spoke about Joe Biden and Donald Trump in hateful terms, they were not subject to the same sexualised language.
When folks tell you to “do your own research”, then for many, it simply involves using their social media to access stuff. That then triggers the algorithms to go, “Oh, if you are into that … then here is more and more“, and so off down the rabbit hole you go into a literal cesspit.
What About the Others?
Larry, the Fox News and second amendment profile, got fed a diet of “2020 election was stolen” posts.
Emma, pro BLM and pro LGBTQI, got fed stuff that attacked SCOTUS and Trump supporters, but none of it was in the same league as Britney. You might even argue, as I would, that such “attacks” were in fact fact-based and valid criticism … or is that my bias?
Gabriela, Hispanic and into her local community, shopping, and fashion, was given right-leaning stuff, mostly fear-mongering about inflation and cost-of-living. Yikes!
Michael, the CNN and Democrat guy, along with Larry, were served up a diet of official campaign adverts. For each what they got was stuff that hit hot button topics. Larry, the Fox guy, got crime, inflation, and immigration topics, and Michael got abortion, climate, and education messages.
One Key takeaway
Remember that this is coming from the UK based BBC. They have no skin in this game, they are looking in from the outside.
What they are highlighting is that the social media companies are not very good at moderation, and they are simply not taking the topic of disinformation and hate seriously.
This is understandable. Doing it properly is bad for business.
They are mostly driven by clicks so they need to keep their audience perpetually enraged and motivated to keep clicking again and again day in and day out.
There has been concern about it all, and so with half an eye on being forced to moderate properly via legislation, social media companies play the game of “look at us, we are moderating, so you don’t need to regulate“.
Rather obviously what the BBC reveals via this small test is that specific profiles that conform to a specific type of person are being spoon fed a daily diet of deeply polarising disinformation that is designed to manipulate them to vote a specific way.
So yea, we should be deeply concerned about that.
Can you be manipulated?
If you think you can’t then hit pause and reconsider, because trust me, you and I really really can be manipulated and fooled.
It is always worth asking yourself some questions.
With Tues Nov 8 in mind, here are a few questions to think about. These are just to help you think about it, don’t feel obliged to respond with any answers. There are no wrong answers here.
1). Are you going to vote on Nov 8?
1a). If not, then is your reason for not voting a practical one, such as “travelling” or similar and you will not be able to participate, or is it political and you feel that there is nobody that can truly represent you on the ballot?
1b). If you don’t have anybody on the ballot who is close to your views, would you be willing to vote for anybody that is going roughly in the direction you prefer, even if it is not ideal?
1c). If you don’t vote and then somebody utterly abysmal gets elected, a complete nut case, how would you then feel about that happening?
2). Assuming you have reached a conclusion regarding who you will vote for, then how did you reach that conclusion?
2a). Will you simply vote red/blue/other because that is how you have always voted? If so, then why do you vote that way?
2b). Was it a TV Ad, social media, events, or a leaflet that persuaded you? (How confident are you that the information you used to make a decision is both accurate and true, and how did you determine that?)
2c). If you have a specific reason for voting a specific way, do you have facts that have been fact-checked, or is it an emotional reaction to something?
Often we do things for emotional reasons. Social media bad actors can and will press such hot buttons to manipulate us. The above questions are a small attempt to nudge you into thinking about it a bit more analytically.
Good luck, oh, and don’t forget to vote.