Evidence shows foreign election interference on social media; why a psychology researcher says you probably don’t notice

MADISON, Wis. — All this month, News 3 Now has looked deep into research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that highlights Russian attempts to influence our thoughts about politics before elections.

As of right now, no substantial changes have been made in government or on social media to stop this in 2020, despite the researcher behind the information saying that’s the best way to prevent it.

“We can’t just blame voters, like, ‘You should just be better educated, and you should learn. You should be more media literate,’” said Young Mie Kim, a professor at the university. “Public education and media literacy is very important, however that alone is not going to solve that problem. There must be some multilevel solutions.”

Kim said the ads sow division in society, capitalizing on politicized issues such as race, gender and immigration.

Research scientist William Cox, an expert on bias and prejudice, explained how one’s brain processes some of the ideas pushed by the memes. He said one ad in particular that shows a map of the United States wrapped in bacon and labeled “Sharia Free Zone,” plays into biases some Americans hold toward Muslims.

anti Muslim ad

“That’s basically saying we don’t want those kinds of people here, and they’re not supposed to be here,” he said. “And that’s the kind of stuff that can go on to perpetuate worse and worse kinds of hate and bias.”

The memes posted by these groups can blend in. They are on pages that look domestic, even Midwestern. One fake page was called “Iowa Patriot.”

The ads are targeted based on a user’s previous social media use, and which means they likely exemplify something the user already believes, which Cox said could make it harder to recognize.

“You pay more attention to things that match your expectations,” he said. “And even when you have information that matches your expectations and information that contradicts them, your brain actually gives more weight to the information that supports your expectations.”

It’s a phenomenon called confirmation bias. In Cox’s research, he gave people three times more evidence against their current beliefs, and participants still walked away without changing their minds.

Cox said awareness is the first step to overcome this.

“It takes being aware that this is the tendency and putting in the effort to kind of focus in and actually get the facts and not just absorb information that’s what you agree with,” he said.

In his own social media, he will fact check even the things he agrees with, an important step based on other research he’s done showing memes perpetuating stereotypes exist more often and spread further than ones countering those stereotypes.

“Your brain doesn’t want to do a lot of work to kind of rewire its belief systems or what it’s learned before,” Cox said. “If it’s something you kind of agree with, people will kind of read the headline of an article, and the headline generally fits what they think, and so they’re like, ‘OK good, I’m right.’ Having to change your opinion or change your perspective takes more effort and generally you aren’t going to want to do that.”

When it comes to foreign groups placing ads, that’s one of the only protections one has. No government intervention is in place to prevent them, and anecdotal evidence shows the groups are already targeting voters ahead of the 2020 election.

“Even if it’s something you agree with, you should hold yourself to a higher level of integrity and evidence,” Cox said.