Digital ads, social media hide political campaign messaging


By NICHOLAS RICCARDI

Associated Press

The main events in a political campaign used to happen in the open: a debate, the release of a major TV ad or a public event where candidates tried to earn a spot on the evening news or the next day’s front page.

That was before the explosion of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as political platforms. Now some of a campaign’s most pivotal efforts happen in the often-murky world of social media, where ads can be targeted to ever-narrower slices of the electorate and run continuously with no disclosure of who is paying for them. Reporters cannot easily discern what voters are seeing, and hoaxes and forgeries spread instantaneously. Journalists trying to hold candidates accountable have a hard time keeping up.

“There’s a whole dark area of campaigns out there when, if you’re not part of the target group, you don’t know anything about them,” said Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, which seeks greater transparency in political spending. “And if reporters don’t know about it, they can’t ask questions about it.”

The problem came to widespread attention during the 2016 presidential race, when Donald Trump’s campaign invested heavily in digital advertising, and the term “fake news” emerged to describe pro-Trump propaganda masquerading as online news. Russian interference in the campaign included covert ads on social media and phony Facebook groups pumping out falsehoods.

The misinformation shows no sign of abating. The U.S. Senate election in Alabama in December was rife with fake online reports in support of Republican Roy Moore, who eventually lost to Democrat Doug Jones amid allegations that Moore had sexual contact with teenagers when he was a prosecutor in his 30s. Moore denied the accusations.

Politicians also try to create their own news operations. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes’ campaign funded a purported news site called The California Republican, and the executive director of Maine’s Republican party last month acknowledged that he runs an anonymous website critical of Democrats.

Phony allegations are nothing new in politics. They used to circulate in automated phone calls, mailers that were often thrown away or, as far back as the 1800s, in partisan newspapers that published once a day, noted Garlin Gilchrist, executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan. The difference now is how quickly false information spreads.

A study released last week found that false information spreads faster and wider on Twitter than real news stories. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology traced the path of more than 126,000 stories on Twitter and found the average false story takes about 10 hours to reach 1,500 users compared with about 60 hours for real ones. On average, false information reaches 35 percent more people than true news.

A data analysis by Buzzfeed’s news site after the 2016 election found the most popular fake stories generated greater engagement on Facebook than the top real stories in the three months before Election Day.

Because it’s increasingly easy to fabricate videos, which are viewed as the most reliable evidence available online, reporters “need stronger tools” to weed out frauds, Gilchrist said.

Social media also upends campaign advertising practices. Federal regulations require a record of every political advertisement that is broadcast on television and radio. But online ads have no comparable requirements.

This month, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey announced the platform would take new steps to try to stop harassment and false information. Facebook has partnered with media organizations, including The Associated Press, to flag false information on its platform.

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