UW-Madison research finds anonymous groups, divisive posts on Facebook ‘rampant’ in 2016

Wisconsin second-most targeted state for ads

A UW-Madison professor is warning that some of the measures Facebook is proposing to make the digital platform more transparent may not be enough to fight what she calls “rampant” divisive messages.

Young Mie Kim, a professor from the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has been researching targeted ads posted on Facebook during the 2016 election as part of her Project DATA (Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis) . She believes it is the first large-scale research effort outside of government investigations to look at the groups and targets of ads that were shared on Facebook during the 2016 campaign.

Timely research (and the first of it’s kind) from @uw_sjmc on @facebook ads: anonymous accounts posting divisive ads “rampant” in 2016 #news3 pic.twitter.com/dpmJS9w7XZ

— Jessica Arp (@news3jessica) April 10, 2018

Kim’s research looked at 10,000 Facebook accounts of volunteers to the project, as well as a survey of the demographics of those users. She found that thousands of ads that were threatening, provoked fear and sowed divisions were largely posted by anonymous actors that couldn’t be tracked.

“I expected to see that a lot of anonymous groups would run divisive issue campaigns and negative campaigns,” Kim said. “In fact, I am surprised and shocked because the degree, the extent to which these divisive campaigns [are] run by anonymous groups is a lot worse than I thought.”

UW-Madison research finds anonymous groups, divisive posts on Facebook ‘rampant’ in 2016

Kim said many she pitched this research project to didn’t believe there was a problem. She was eventually awarded a number of grants through the UW, Princeton University and the Knight Foundation.

Research now being published in the academic journal Political Communication will show that the anonymous groups weren’t registered with the Federal Elections Commission. Kim says one in six of the groups they discovered were later confirmed to be tied to Kremlin-linked Russian groups, as verified by data released by the House Intelligence Committee.

Findings also show that Wisconsin was one of the two most targeted states for the controversial posts.

UW-Madison research finds anonymous groups, divisive posts on Facebook ‘rampant’ in 2016

“Voters in Wisconsin were targeted 72 percent more than the national average voting age population with the gun issue and 85 percent more than the national average voting age population with the racial conflict issue,” Kim said.

Kim says she believes voters should know where information is coming from, especially on influential platforms.

“If the targeting happens and an algorithm determines democracy, especially the algorithm constructed by unknown actors, I think that is a red flag,” Kim said.

The professor said she was encouraged by Facebook’s announcement of efforts to provide more verification and transparency around political ad posts. She’s concerned, though, about the focus on what she calls “top pagers” and not the small niche organizations she said their research uncovered was doing most of the posting.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also recently announced they’ll work with academic researchers to establish an “independent election research commission” to look at the effects of social media on democracy.

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