A response to “Policing Propaganda.“
The role of social media in politics came to the forefront during the 2016 United States presidential election. Instead of waiting for the headlines and watching TV for the latest in the presidential race, a quick look at your Twitter or Facebook feeds would be enough to catch up. Nuance in political discussions was replaced by debate with faceless strangers online, and these discussions tended to be less productive and more inflammatory. The question of whether you are even interacting with a real person came into play. All this leads to is a populace that is increasingly polarized with only surface level understanding of issues. Long gone is the political engagement of the past, where we sent letters to our senators and attended rallies. Now, getting involved can be as simple as retweeting a political post.
A study conducted by Oxford University found that a third of all pro-Trump tweets and a fifth of all pro-Clinton tweets during between the first and second debates of the 2016 presidential election were generated by bots. Twitter bots are not difficult to make (I would know, having made a few myself). Amateur coders often make them for fun experiments such as one that randomly generates deserts or patterns resembling eyes. Overwhelmingly, though, the popular conversation around bots is largely concentrated on the way they steer political thought in America. 2016’s election was all about Russian bots and Russian interference and Russian hacking, but rarely do I see commentary on how the prevalence of social media means that the candidates followings are also largely fabricated. It is extremely easy to buy bots programmed to interact with targeted content, as that engagement is what keeps the Tweets on people’s feeds. The average person may buy followers for an ego boost, while a politician or corporation may buy followers and interactions as a way to stay relevant in the constant conversation cycling through on social media platforms. In the age of social media, we are all engaged in the attention economy, and those with money can buy attention for the causes they want attention given to.
Politicians are also pressured to market themselves in unprecedented ways now that social media is a major factor in election cycles. NPR recounts a Twitter exchange between Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton’s accounts, saying it is nothing more than the two accounts trolling each other in lieu of actual debate. As Kerric Harvey, author of The Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics said, “Both the technology itself, and the way we choose to use the technology, makes it so that what ought to be a conversation is just a set of Post-it notes that are scattered. Not even on the refrigerator door, but on the ground.” Bush and Clinton’s exchange reads like two teenagers online attempting to one-up each other in a match of who can make the best meme, not two candidates running for president. While the media focuses on how Trump disrupts democratic norms, it cannot be ignored that many other candidates employ these tactics as well out of necessity. Social media and its attention economy do not welcome long posts (in fact, Twitter limits itself to 280 characters). Instead, the most inflammatory and attention-grabbing posts are necessary to keep relevance. A politician like Trump becoming successful was bound to happen; his skirmishes with the media are practically built for the attention economy and serve as the backdrop for many a heated Twitter debate. Other politicians know how to play this game too, though, and while not as shocking as Trump’s own Tweets, it is easy to find politicians (or their staff who runs the account) quoting each other’s accounts with comebacks and fact checks galore.
media platforms must take responsibility to clean up the mess that they have
enabled, but, without this mess, where would all the attention come from? Their
CEOs would not crack down on bots, fake accounts, and false information when
they provide so much of the revenue. These are a different beast from political
advertisements, and it is up to lawmakers to attempt to regulate them as well.
Targeted political advertisements are one part of social medias powerful role
in politics, and to ignore the ways politicians themselves engage with the
platform (that itself can be considered advertising) misses the broader picture
of the modern political age.
 See Eli Parsier’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You