Political scientists like Travis Ridout are charting the course our virtual lives are setting for society. There are pros — we have access to an unprecedented trove of information. There are also some major cons, like unprecedented, mass psychological manipulation.
Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University and author of “Political Advertising in the United States,” will speak about social media and democracy Tuesday at Basalt Cellars in Clarkston as part of the Wine and Wisdom series organized by the Asotin County Library. Inland 360 talked to Ridout for a preview.
One of the downsides of social media is psychological manipulation. How are political campaigns using social media to influence voters?
They’re using it to target very specific individuals and groups of individuals, Ridout said.
“That can reinforce our partisan polarization in our country. If I’m getting a message on my side and someone else is getting a different message on their side, we’re talking past each other. That’s not a conversation.”
How do political campaigns, and others, target specific individuals or groups using social media?
In essence, they bring together a lot of different sources of data, Ridout said.
A political campaign starts with voter registration lists, then obtains consumer data.
“Data firms know about 500 different facts about each of us,” Rideout said, from magazine subscriptions to whether or not you pay your bills on time.
Campaigns buy this information and tack it onto the voter registration list. Then they do large-scale surveys to find out the relationships between political variables and extrapolate the information they’ve gathered.
For instance, “because you own a Prius and subscribe to this magazine you’re highly likely to be a democratic voter and turn out. The Democratic campaign targets you, while Republican campaigns ignore you,” he said.
In this way infrequent voters get bypassed.
“If you’re someone who doesn’t turn out to vote, it’s easy for campaigns to say we don’t want to talk to you, we only want to talk to voters.”
Are social media platforms selling our information to political campaigns?
They’re not necessarily selling our information, but they’re selling advertisers access to target us, Ridout said.
A campaign contacts Facebook and says it wants to sell ads to people with specific interests. And it can get really specific.
For example, Facebook can target conservative, widowed, hispanic baby boomers with mobile phones who served in the military, have adult children, an interest in guns and are in the top 50 percent of the income level for their ZIP code; or women in their 20s with a college degree who recently moved, have a toddler, are interested in vegetarianism and alcoholic beverages, work in health care and are in a complicated relationship.
Every piece of information shared, post or video liked, commented on or gazed upon over the years adds to your virtual profile.
“Facebook has all that information and says we’ll make sure people who match those characteristics see your ad,” Ridout said.
What changes has Facebook implemented to be more transparent?
Facebook established an ad library, Ridout said. It’s searchable by name, topic or organization.
“You can search for a specific candidate, see ads that are run on Facebook by that candidate and ads run by groups that attack that candidate. There is a lot more transparency than in the past.”
You can also see how much groups are spending on online advertising.
However, those who follow this closely have a lot of criticisms, he said.
“It’s still unclear how ads get into the database and how they get excluded. There’s instances of ads that should be in the database not being there.”
Russian interference in the 2016 election has been proven without a doubt. Has anything changed as we head toward the 2020 election?
“I think we’re probably better prepared than we were in 2016, in part because of more transparency and in part because of more recognition (that this is happening).
“As far as anything the government has done, it’s pretty much nothing. I would expect attempts by Russia to interfere with the 2020 election and, in fact, they’re probably ongoing right now.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Hacking Democracy: What social media is doing to democracy”
WHEN: 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13
WHERE: Basalt Cellars Winery, 906 Port Drive, Clarkston
COST: Free. Refreshments will be served. Wine will be available for purchase.
Three tips for avoiding fake news and psychological manipulation online.
Consider at the source. There are millions of memes and articles floating around social media. You should consider where or who that information came from.
Be aware of your emotional reaction. When people are trying to sway you with slanted news or misinformation, they’re trying to get an emotional response. They’re trying to make you feel a certain way.
Verify before you share. If you see a story that seems too out there to be true, see if you can verify it with another reliable source.