Facebook now boasts more than two billion users worldwide, but this well-known social media platform also has a rising role in the political arena. As the internet becomes more accessible social media leviathans like Facebook become staples in modern society, but they may have a negative effect on the robustness of democratic elections. Unlike broadcast television, regulation has not adapted to the role social media can play in disseminating fake news, allowing foreign interference, and providing considerable campaign fundraising revenue.
The 2016 campaign trail was rife with fake news articles that were widely shared on social media platforms. This proliferation is a potential explanation for the outcome of the 2016 election. In a recent study, a subsection of citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 were given a survey that measured whether they believed three fake news statements. “Among those who believed none of the three fake news stories, 89 percent cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016; among those who believed one fake news item, this level of electoral support fell to 61 percent; but among those who had voted for Obama in 2012 and believed two or all three of these false assertions, only 17 percent voted for Clinton.” (Gunther, Richard et al. 2018. “Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election.” Working paper. Pg 2.) This seems to support that fake news has an impact on who people vote for, but the study acknowledges that making a causal claim would ignore several alternative explanations. But when considering how close the votes were for both candidates in key states, then the possibility of fake news having any impact on voter decision is a crucial question to investigate. Mark Zuckerberg has made a commitment to reduce the proliferation of fake news on Facebook’s platform following the 2016 election.
Recently, issues with how Facebook runs its ads has been highlighted in the media. During the 2016 election, Russian associated ads that included divisive issues or the elections and candidates themselves were paid to run on Facebook. There are federal laws against foreign interference in elections, but do these ads on the internet violate those laws? Since 2002 non-American citizens cannot “directly or indirectly” spend money “in connection with” any U.S. election. There is a lot of criticism aimed at the ads that explicitly mentioned the election. However, people can object that the proportion of ads that violate the 2002 law are quite a small section of the Russian associated ads that circulated. Even though those ads which mentioned the election can be investigated, a majority of the Russian backed ads do not fall into that category. But this can be used to push the discussion further about federal regulation. The influence that companies like Facebook have might not fall under regulations typically used for platforms such as broadcast television. Perhaps the international nature of the internet requires social media platforms to follow specially designed regulation that monitor how people can take out ads and who those ads can target.
Facebook’s own internal policies are attempting to make the platform less vulnerable to foreign influence when a country has elections. After the United States 2016 presidential elections, Facebook is preparing new features in advance of the South African election. One of these new measures is that the location of Facebook page administrators are no longer anonymous. This is to help identify news sources or advertisers who work with them to be unable to hide whether they are domestic or foreign content creators. Users also have the option, when flagging a post, to categorize it as false news. This will help Facebook sort through potential fake news and stop its proliferation, but it is unsure how this new feature will fare.
Another eroding element is the growing reliance on Facebook for campaign funding. In the United States, Trump’s digital director said that most of Trump’s quarter of a billion dollars from online fundraising came from Facebook ads. Political contribution regulation has not be updated to match this change. This is not just how Facebook now operates, but 2016 marked a vastly different digital-first campaign strategy by a candidate that proved to be very effective. Future research into the impact Facebook has on both news, foreign influence, and finances of democratic elections is imperative, as the impact of platforms like Facebook are likely to grow in the following elections.
Image from the Facebook profile page at facebook.com