Social media has evolved as a crucial tool during election cycles — but it can also be misused
Nov 9, 2022

Social media has evolved as a crucial tool during election cycles — but it can also be misused

Online discourse can amplify authoritative information about elections. But some online spaces can foster an echo chamber of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Good luck trying to escape political news this week. Election coverage is everywhere — on the airwaves and online. And every election cycle seems to reveal more and more about the growing, pivotal and sometimes controversial role of social media in the run-up to elections and, like now, during their aftermath.

Campaigns can use social media to boost voter turnout and build community, but others use it to mislead voters.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Pinar Yildirim, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies media, technology and information economics. She explained why the technology underlying these platforms can amplify misinformation and conspiracy theories. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Pinar Yildirim: Social media platforms are driven by rules, by algorithms, by standards that create structure on how information is disseminated or how quickly it spreads, who it spreads to. And when you look at those algorithms, they tend to prefer creating or providing information to individuals from individuals that they may know, individuals who are much more similar to them in their lifestyles, their backgrounds, as well as in political opinions. As a result of that, there is a fear or a concern that there might be greater levels of echo chambers also in these online social spaces.

Kimberly Adams: We’ve reported on this show about the misuses of some platforms to, say, intentionally spread misleading information. How did you see that play out in the lead-up to Election Day?

Yildirim: Going into this particular election cycle, there’s a greater concern that misinformation might have played a role in either shaping political opinions or persuading or dissuading individuals from acting, engaging in political activities.

Adams: How can social media companies be proactive in catching when their platforms are being misused, because it seems like this is all something that keeps repeating itself every single election period now?

Yildirim: What the platforms can do, they can, first of all, of course, increase the level of content moderation. They can go much more actively monitor content to make sure that the information that is spreading is not against facts, it’s not in contrast of facts. Or try to do an update of the algorithms that are monitoring content 24/7 because what we also know is if misinformation is spreading, the language, the semantics, of the information can also change. But above and beyond that, what the social media platforms can do is to inform the users about the potential harms and potential consequences of being on social media and the choices that they make.

Adams: Now, results aren’t yet final in many of the races in this week’s election, and getting those results may take a while. But based on 2020, we know that misinformation about things like election fraud and voting machines can spread really quickly online. What are some of the real-life consequences of social media that allows misinformation and conspiracy theories to proliferate? I’m thinking of the radicalization we saw after the 2020 election that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Yildirim: Social media platforms and the information that’s disseminated through social media platforms can contribute to people’s political opinions, and in particular to polarization. So misinformation is, of course, part of this. Misinformation tends to emerge much more commonly in some clusters, some political clusters, and misinformation tends to influence certain parts, certain segments of the population at a greater rate than other parts. For instance, younger individuals, individuals who have lower levels of education, they’re much more prone to believing misinformation and acting upon that misinformation. So what we might, again, anticipate just like the aftermath of the 2020 election is the emergence of misinformation in the days following an election, the midterm election.

And there will be individuals who will believe the wrong information, and these individuals will be most likely coming from certain segments of the population. They may act upon these beliefs. This might be an action of just going online and expressing their disappointment, or it may go beyond. It may result in some political activity, some collective action against what they believe. And when I say collective action, I mean just getting together with other individuals who are like-minded. So it’s possible that’s the misinformation, in general, or information that’s spreading on social media is resulting in polarization, and that polarization tends to reflect on our actions as these action might be simply against others who we interact with in our communications, in our everyday behavior. It might also be political actions that we take, or future voting behavior or expression of this content, whichever way that may shape. There is generally the link between our political opinions and political polarization or engagement with others of the opposing party.

Adams: What does the research say about strategies that might actually work in the cases where you might have friends or family going down that rabbit hole of online conspiracy theories or misinformation?

Yildirim: Well, we can think of a number of interventions that are coming from research. And what we know is in order to be able to reduce degrees of polarization, it helps to expose individuals to political opinions that are different than [their]. And try to do that in a way that is not too defensive, it’s not too alienating, because we know from research that if people are given information that seems to confront them, they tend to sometimes go the opposite route and start believing their misinformation or their political opinions at a greater level. So it’s important how these individuals are exposed to counter-opinions, counter-political opinions.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer