Does social media have an impact on US election outcomes?

Social media shapes voters’ decision
Voters can’t be swayed by social media
December 2, 2020
Oluwatobi Olaniran

Why the need to discuss this...

After the 2016 US elections, there were claims that the spread of fake news via social media had an impact on the election outcome. BuzzFeed’s analysis showed that the top 20 fake election posts on Facebook outperformed the top 20 posts from mainstream media towards the elections. Most of these fake posts were in favour of the election winner, President Trump.

What was the result?

Social media platforms leveraged on their rising human capital and started offering paid and unregulated advertisements. This allowed candidates and campaign teams ‒ even Russia’s Internet Research Agency ‒ to use these platforms for targeted political posts and advertisements.

The question...

The varying claims about the role of social media during the US election raised questions on whether social media has any impact on the election outcomes.

1. Americans vote based on partisan views

Only registered voters determine election results, and statistics show that almost every registered voter in the US is partisan. Evidenced by the 2018 midterm elections, partisans voted based on partisan loyalty instead of political advertisements.

So, who is the easy target?

Social media posts and advertisements are targeted towards politically independent individuals because they are most likely to consider other voting options compared to partisans. 38% of Americans claim to be politically independent but only 7% of them do not lean towards any party. 

What this means...

US independents

Political social media advertising is mostly ineffective because partisans are less likely to change their predetermined voting choice based on party alliance, and independents are less likely to register and vote in the elections. Pew Research Center states that only 33% of independents voted in the 2018 midterm elections. The small proportion of voters is not sufficient to change election results.

2. Politicians have always employed misinformation

The history of misinformation and falsehood in politics is as old as the game of politics. The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech ‒ including political speech ‒  which typically contains misinformation and fake news as contained in social media posts and advertisements.

Why is this so?

The basis for no legal regulation on political speech is to ensure that voters have access to sufficient and uncensored information leading to the polls. Voters can then verify the information, and make their own judgement and final voting decisions.

How does this make sense?

The source of political advertisements and posts do not originate from social media. Instead, they come from statements and speeches made by politicians, campaign teams, and Political Action Committees (PACs). Social media platforms simply act as a promotional tool to dispense the information.

Hence, the final voting decision remains with voters. Voters who wish to elect the best choice for their country have the prerogative to sift through the noise on social media to ensure they vote objectively. This is exactly what the electoral process of the US hinges upon instead of social media.

1. Higher budget spent on political social media advertisement

There is a considerable increase in the budget that political candidates are spending on social media advertisement. Advertisement helps political candidates boost their chances of winning with increased name recognition and helps them reach voters especially those who are ambivalent about the elections.

How it works...

Facebook’s family of apps are the only platforms that run microtargeted political advertisements based on established user interests. For instance, a Republican strategist’s polling found that the suburban women were frustrated by red-light cameras, so he targeted them with Facebook advertisements promising that Republican Government would abolish the cameras if elected (which they eventually won).

The history...

President Barack Obama spent $22.25 million as the first US presidential candidate to use social media political advertisements. Fast forward to 2020, Joe Biden and President Trump spent $186.6 and $168.69 million respectively on both Facebook and Google ads. (Check out this interactive dashboard that tracks political advertisements in the US!)

Are there any regulations to tackle this?

In the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the Honest Advertisement Act bill was proposed in 2017 to regulate advertising rules across online and TVs/radio platforms, and to increase transparency of individuals who spent more than $500 on online political advertisements. The bill has yet to be approved.

The result…

This allows politically affiliated firms such as Cambridge Analytica to buy our commercial data (e.g our browsing history, card spending patterns etc.) and accurately build a psychological profile based on our expected political preference. Political campaigns can then direct tailored advertisements to us based on the psychological profile created. 

2. Political censorship on social media platforms

Social media platforms have less stringent rules guiding content censorship and removal. Claims that social media platforms were used to spread misinformation and fake news during the 2016 election made companies increase their political censorship practices.

What did these platforms do?

Republicans in the US Senate cite section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as the reason for unwarranted censorship on social media sites. This section protects companies from the responsibility for user content and empowers them to censor any content they deem unfit for their platform.

This exclusivity passes an excessive discretionary and editorial power to social media platforms as seen in the buildup to the 2020 US elections.

How it played out…

It showed that social media platforms are not completely neutral in their censorship approach. Twitter and Facebook had censored President Donald Trump 65 times between May 2018 and October 2020, without any imposed on Joe Biden’s account.

Does it affect what users see?

Increased political censorship means any political content found in violation of subjective community rules is deleted or flagged by a platform's algorithm. This has the potential to skew election results in favour of uncensored parties.

Politicians are spending more to exploit the increasing human capital on social media. This has led to the censorship of political posts that can potentially impact US election outcomes. On the other hand, partisans remain loyal to their political party, and in the midst of propaganda on social media, voters still do their due diligence before voting. 

With the increasing use of social media, can election outcomes remain independent of social media?

Disclaimer: We are by no means supporting one side of the argument over the other. We collate different views and expand on them to give you a better understanding of the motivation behind these views.
Image credit: Element5 Digital (Pexels)
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