Most nights, I spend a couple of minutes aimlessly scrolling through my newsfeed before I actually fall asleep. I tag a friend or two on a final post before bedtime, scroll past a cat video and skim a couple of captions and headlines before I set my alarm and call it a day. The next morning, I join in a conversation about politics. “I’m not sure where I read this, but I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about!” I’m certain that I read about that candidate somewhere — probably in the news, or something.
Huge spoiler alert: It wasn’t actually the news — it was on social media, from a sketchy website with more pop-up ads than verified facts that I stumbled past, half asleep. I happened to scroll past the link last night, and the headline stuck with me. No matter how many push notifications I set and newsletters I subscribe to, there’s no easy way to avoid untrustworthy content that sneaks its way to me in the middle of memes and shared articles.
I, like many of you, can be guilty of unconsciously picking up ideas without being completely aware of where they’re from. As Daniel Kahneman explains in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” our unconscious errors of reasoning, or cognitive biases, can distort our understanding and judgment of the world. These biases can be subtle. We don’t always know what exactly caused them, but they’re exactly what advertisers can feed on to use the media to influence elections.
Microtargeted advertisements on social media platforms, such as Facebook, give advertisers the unique ability to reach a niche audience or a specific target group of voters. This is great for businesses trying to sell retail products to the right people, but it’s even greater if you’re a Russian group trying to manipulate a U.S. audience to boycott voting at an election. As Mark Zuckerberg beautifully phrased it, “Senator, we run ads,” and while these ads are intended to sustain a business model for Facebook, they put power in the hands of people who may abuse it by targeting people and influencing voting plans.
As a passive scroller, I may not always pause to check who paid for the advertisement I see in my feed. Fake news can be artistically crafted and carefully curated for me to read and quickly move past. It is easy to be misled — whether it’s by a clandestine video that pops up between Snapchats or a quote that your friend from class absentmindedly retweeted — and neglect to make associations between what you absorb, where it came from and whether it’s accurate.
But it’s not all bad news.
With elections comes the privilege and responsibility for Americans to vote. If you exercised your right to do so, or you plan to vote in the future, be aware of the information that you believe to be true, and double-check your sources. It can be difficult to discern whether you “know” something from a targeted advertisement from a competitor, read it on your woke friends’ Twitter thread or saw it in an unbiased newspaper article. Media can influence people to participate and can steer beliefs about different topics in the best and worst ways — it’s up to you to make sure you don’t entangle yourself in a trap of misinformation.
If you’re unsure about how to navigate coverage and escape the clutches of fake news, subscribe to reputable outlets. Read The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times or any other fact-checked and reliable news source. This will give you confidence in your own research and ability to prevent stray information from swaying your opinions. Follow your local news sources to understand the impact that the elections can have on your area, but most importantly, be an active news consumer during elections to eliminate those unconscious errors of reasoning and stay informed.
As platforms such as Facebook work toward keeping people informed about potential fake news and increasing transparency in advertising, it’s up to voters to make sure that the power that media holds can be leveraged for good. To battle misinformation, Facebook created an ad archive to let users search up to seven years back for detailed information about advertisers. It created new best practices to ensure accurate identity and location for anyone paying to run an ad, and it reviewed its selection criteria that allowed microtargeting in the first place. With so much rhetoric about fake news and advertising, it’s no surprise that the company is working to curb microtargeting. As these new tools come into play, we, as media-literate consumers of news, have to learn how to use them to take power back into our own hands — and away from political advertisers.
So, take a cue from Taylor Swift to be that pesky friend and share that you voted with all your friends. Put it on your Instagram story, Snapchat it to your whole contact list and, if you want to, check if people you know voted in a previous election with a political app such as VoteWithMe or Outvote. You can use this information to target and reach out to people who haven’t voted in the past — the same way Russian groups targeted people with Facebook ads — but in this case, we’re microtargeting to use social pressure for a much better cause.