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From emotional messages to accusations: how politics plays out online this election

Brown graduate, faculty cite social media, news’ contributions to 2020 election, politics

Many elements of the 2020 presidential election — voter turnout, campaigning and election discourse — have played out through digital channels.

Due to voter registration efforts by Facebook, the company has reported logging around 2.5 million registrations so far from its home app, Instagram and Messenger. Social media savvy politicians like congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have taken to Twitch, a gaming platform, to encourage voting, according to The Washington Post. Meanwhile, some University students have taken leave to work on nation-wide virtual campaigns, The Herald previously reported.

Researchers across disciplines spoke with The Herald about how the different presentations and types of information reaching Americans will play into this year’s election and political trends following Nov. 3.

Appealing to mass audiences

Campaigns have employed tactics including emotional messages to encourage acceptance of the information they are sharing online and through media.

These messages are more likely to convince people than statistical information because the former quickly reach emotional centers in the brain, whereas statistics require greater mental processing, said Rose McDermott, professor of international relations and political cognition researcher.

McDermott’s research suggests that the way in which Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns have decided to create ads significantly influences the voters watching. For example, McDermott said that The Lincoln Project’s campaigns, which are run by Republicans against Trump, are “much more effective than any of the Democratic ads because they are simple and emotional messages,” McDermott said.

She cites the project’s Biden-Harris ad campaign called “Girl in the Mirror,” which juxtaposes clips of President Donald Trump’s negative remarks on women with reminders to viewers to think of their daughters, as a particularly effective example.

The consequences of "fake news"

President Trump’s administration often uses the term “fake news”— the claim that certain information has been misconstrued — to undermine any critical reporting on their actions, according to Zeve Sanderson ’15.

While the consumption and sharing of fake news is a relatively rare occurrence, what is more concerning is the general decline of trust in media and institutions, he wrote in an email to The Herald.

Sanderson is the executive director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics; he studies the diffusion and consumption of information and how it affects attitudes and behaviors, such as trust in institutions and protest attendance.

The Center’s team is composed of social scientists, computer scientists, data engineers and others, all of whom are collecting data from social media sites during this election season. Sanderson and his team look at social media powerhouses like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as fringe platforms like 4Chan and Gab. Future research will examine how politics plays out on understudied platforms like TikTok and YouTube by studying data such as ad spending to determine how right- or left-leaning various platforms are.

An article published recently by Business Insider suggests that social networks have fractured politically, with Instagram seeing greater interactions with liberal-leaning content and Facebook tending to be more conservative-friendly. The Center is in the process of analyzing how this could impact the diffusion of political information across different platforms, Sanderson said in an interview with The Herald.

The Center has also investigated the impact of fake news’ voice in society. In a study done in collaboration with the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, the Center found that people are generally unable to correctly identify fake news. For articles that professionals had deemed false or misleading, participants were just as likely to mark them as true as they were to correctly identify them as fake news, according to a piece Sanderson co-write in The Washington Post.

Other research also suggests this acceptance of fake news is more prominent among youth. Sanderson cited recent findings from a team of researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard and Rutgers University that found younger people more likely to believe COVID-19-related misinformation.

Their survey results showed that 18 percent of people under 25 would accept this false information as the truth — the highest percentage of any age category, according to the research report.

Certain strategies like repetition tire out the brain and can cause people to be more susceptible to believing false statements, McDermott said.

“One of the biggest predictors of whether someone will believe fake news is whether they are familiar with the story,” Sanderson said. If they are familiar, they are less likely to think it is “fake news.”

But during the 2016 election, New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics found that older Facebook users are less inclined to believe fake news, but more likely than younger users to share it online.

“That suggests that there is quite a big difference in believing something and sharing something,” he said.

Insights from Trump’s social media presence 

President Trump’s presence on social media can reveal insights into the status of truth and truthfulness in the U.S. and whether society is able to return to a shared understanding of these tenets rather than disintegrating, according to Michael Kennedy, professor of sociology and international and public affairs.

“It’s not that we have a lack of facts,” he told The Herald, “it’s that we have a skepticism towards one another.”

Kennedy used Trump as an example of this when he taught SOC 0010: An Introduction to Sociology last semester.

As expressed on his Twitter account, as well as in publicly televised appearances, Trump uses a technique of deflection Kennedy termed “the surmise” — denying personal responsibility while deflecting blame onto another group and guiding his supporter base to take action against that group to magnify his authority.

Points opposing the Internet’s contribution to polarization 

But factors besides the Internet may be driving changes in political attitudes, according Jesse Shapiro, professor of political economy.

Compared to other countries, the U.S. has seen a substantially large increase in “affective polarization,” or “the extent to which individuals express more negative sentiment towards the other parties than towards their own,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

In a study published in 2017, Shapiro and other researchers found that greater use of the Internet and social media has not played a role in increasing political polarization. Rather, polarization is rising equally fast or faster among groups that have been slower to use modern digital platforms, he wrote.

Also, despite “the widespread perception that digital media benefited Trump’s campaign,” Shapiro also found that for the 2016 presidential election, Trump performed poorly among groups of voters that are most active online, relative to previous Republican candidates.

The proliferation of social media cannot be the only source held responsible for magnifying the degree of political division in the U.S, Kennedy said. “We have to also recognize the ways in which particular actors have used the media and used the historical legacies of division in this country to augment our dilemma.”



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