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Social Media Impacted the Psychology of Political Division

Guest column: We need to fix social media before next year’s elections.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

Social media’s dark side has transcended the psyche of individuals and companies to taint our nation’s democratic institutions. When political ads appear on Facebook from sources called “_american.made” or “Being Patriotic,” but are actually from Russian “troll farms,” it is something to take seriously in our sacred democracy. At the same time, we’re learning that social media can influence society more than we think. Historically, media have changed politics, but this, however, is a game-changer.

The recently disclosed slew of ads that were bought by Russian troll farms on our biggest digital and social media networks reflected an attempt to influence voters, sow discontent, and even inspire Americans to fight one another. The Russian efforts reached an estimated 126 million people on Facebook alone, but they also targeted Twitter, Google’s YouTube, and other networks. Typically, social media ads target users based on geography, demographics, or lifestyle. These ads centered on immigration, race, religion, and gun control.

It is clear the Russian-bought ads strategically focused on controversial or divisive topics for a reason. The public release of just a sample of the 3,000 ads shows a sophisticated influence campaign on the 2016 presidential election via social media advertising content. We now can see some ways in which the nation’s democratic process was under attack. What is less clear is how we will mount an effective defense against future attacks. Only a concerted effort from the world’s biggest tech companies, the government, and the American public will give us a fighting chance.

There needs to be a greater sense of corporate social responsibility and higher standards. In the age of digital news consumption, the tech giants that own these platforms are media companies for all intents and purposes, and they share a large part of the responsibility for misinformation. Representatives from the companies have told lawmakers that they are conducting internal investigations, though they aren’t complete. The companies have also been removing advertisements and other content that Russian troll farms have created, though they rightly fear that legitimate content could be squelched.

Some of the most effective Russian content came in the form of Facebook groups and events that are not paid for and are open to anyone who uses Facebook. All media platforms, including newspapers, have struggled with whether and how to control user-generated content such as comments. Comments sections represent another form of social influence that may have been compromised.

Software bots have also been a problem on these social networks, spreading misinformation, and amplifying false narratives. The companies have been working to shut down malicious bots, but they must do more, including making sure the sources of ads are accurately labeled and clear to the networks’ users. Even if profits are lowered by the need to promptly hire more employees to address the issue, it is a corporate social responsibility of the digital or social media company.

Lawmakers, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, whose home state of California includes the headquarters for these tech firms, have warned the companies that they must do more. Congress’s move to disclose the social media ads is a great step toward public awareness, though lawmakers should tread carefully before passing laws that stifle free speech and freedom of the press. Again, these companies are media companies. It would be a dangerous precedent to shut down content through legislation.

The public ultimately holds the key to combating political cyberattacks. More than two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news through social media, according to the Pew Research Center. We now know there is indeed “fake news,” though it’s not necessarily about information that is in opposition to your politics. News and advertisements need to be consumed through a critical, thoughtful lens. Before hitting that share button, question the source of the material. Is it from a trustworthy, well-known organization? Are you sharing content or joining a questionable cause just because it fits your political ideology? The Russian efforts hit both sides of the political aisle.

With midterm elections a year away, tech companies, lawmakers and the public all have a responsibility to fight back. All Americans, regardless of political persuasion, should want fair elections that are not intruded upon by a foreign power.

Robert Quigley is a senior lecturer and the innovation director in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a former social media editor of the Austin American-Statesman.

Angeline Close Scheinbaum is an associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of the scholarly book The Dark Side of Social Media: A Consumer Psychology Perspective (Routledge, 2018).

Opinions expressed by Texas Monthly guest columnists are their own.


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  • anonyfool

    I lost it at “greater sense of corporate responsibility”. They don’t care and won’t care until people boycott and stop using their products. Considering how much the GOP and center/right Democrats kowtow to companies, the government won’t help either.

  • Don Baker

    Russia didn’t make me vote for Trump. Hillary did

  • John Bernard Books

    The left is desperate….
    “But Virginians with criminal records might get the last word, because for the first time in a long time, a huge group of ex-felons will help pick the state’s next governor.”

    Felons, illegals and government workers choose a socialist for governor and democrats are ecstatic….

  • SpiritofPearl

    I never see ads for right-wing causes or candidates on FB – nothing, nada. I suspect that’s because I don’t have a history with FB of relating to those candidates or causes. FB knows your political and social views, so targets ads to people who are already susceptible to brainwashing.

    And Mark Zuckerberg thought he might run for president?


    I fear even “a greater sense of corporate responsibility” will accomplish little while we have people like those who posted—and others that willingly spread—the lies that Sunday’s shooter was a anti-fascist who proclaimed the glory of communism while murdering 26 people and thousands and thousands who will willfully believe such filth. Although that is about as horrible of a distortion as you can get, the sad fact is that we have millions more–including at least two frequent posters on this blog—who knowingly and willfully spread lies about Clinton last year….not of this scale by any degree…but when done day by day erode our faith in our country. Of course, I guess any respect for anything close to the truth is not necessary when like one of those frequent posters (in his prior identity) repeatedly declared that all media, all reports and studies and everyone (except him) are lies and liars.

    • John Bernard Books

      you mean Donna Brazile lied?
      “Brazile wrote that she had “promised” Sanders to find out if the DNC had intentionally “rigged” the primary system in order to prop up Clinton and assure she became the nominee. That assertion first popped up after the DNC’s emails, hacked by Russians, had been published online and showed former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others may have tipped the scales for the Democrat Clinton versus Sanders, an independent seeking the Democratic Party nod.”

      you senile old fool…..

    • donuthin2

      And to me that is most discouraging. It shows that we have a significant portion of our population that are not critical thinkers and just buy into such garbage. Many were very critical of Clinton for saying that Trump supporters were deplorable. She later apologized, but in retrospect I think she was right.

    • SeeItMyWay

      State the false lies about Clinton, please.

  • John Bernard Books

    I’ve met few government workers that had common sense…..
    “A KXAN Investigation discovered it’s our own state government that’s giving out the most important key to unlocking the rest of your personal information. And it’s an easy cash stream for the state, bringing in $2.7 million since 2010.”
    The every pressing need to expand government drives programs like this. Idiots….


    I have seen two movies in the last week that I strongly recommend to anyone who, like me, sometimes has doubts about the future of this country. Both covered perhaps the two darkest periods in our country’s history in the past 60 plus years—-Watergate and Richard Nixon and the death of President Kennedy and the rise of Lyndon Johnson. The movies, Mark Felt and LBJ, both present flawed men who, in our country’s time of need, acted to preserve and protect what is best about America. which will give you hope for the future. LBJ will also show you perhaps the best picture of LJB of any. I highly recommend both.

    • donuthin2

      It is interesting to me that often people who are great leaders often have a dark side. I don’t know that I think Nixon was one of those. LBJ was for sure. One, more recent, was Bob Bullock. If even a few of the stories that I have heard from those working for him or true, he would not survive today. Many of them loved and hated him at the same time. Several had been hired, fired and rehired several times. Sexual escapades by many were rampant in the capitol. Apparently you did not dare open a broom closet during the lunch hour. But they respected his vision and ability to get things done. Wish he had made it to governor. Timing was just not right.

      • WUSRPH

        I was only fired twice…second time it took…..

        • SpiritofPearl

          I doubt you were caught in a broom closet . . .

          • donuthin2

            From what I have heard, that would not have gotten you fired. Maybe sensitivity training at some fancy resort.

          • SpiritofPearl

            All these menfolks are rushing off to “therapy” now that their piggish activities will cost them their careers and MONEY.

          • donuthin2

            There is lots of guilt among the guys for pushing themselves on women from a position of power. But I have seen quite a lot of women who were aggressive about getting up the ladder make themselves readily available to the guy who could help her get there. Most were talented, smart, personable and would get there eventually but were in a hurry. There seemed to be an unspoken signal between the guy and lady that made it work. Sometimes it didn’t work because the guy realized it was nothing more than just a “power……….”. I don’t think it was a quid quo pro thing, but rather having a close relationship with the person in power.

  • John Bernard Books
  • John Bernard Books

    The intolerant left claims another victim…
    “Yet another candidate has announced then quickly pulled out of the race for Travis County Democratic Party chair.”

    Hey woman pop some more popcorn this is getting good…..gotta love watching the dems implode

  • Hard Little Machine

    The top 30 people who work for Twitter should be targeted for assassination.