When Campaigns Manipulate Social Media

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Since young voters discovered they could friend Barack Obama on Facebook during the 2008 election, social media has become ingrained in the way we think about political discourse. Politicians and tech evangelists alike see it as the key to a new type of politics: Campaigns and candidates can better engage citizens, facilitate grassroots organization, and craft legislation with the direct input of a Tweeting electorate. The inevitable results, optimists argue, will be a sort of "digital democracy," defined by a closer, more coherent relationship between the elected officials and their constituents.

But social media, like any tool, can be used to erode democratic practices as well.

A few days before the special election in Massachusetts to fill Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy, the conservative American Future Fund (AFF) conducted a "Twitter-bomb" campaign against Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate. The AFF set up nine anonymous Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election that sent hundred of tweets accusing Martha Coakley of taking money from health insurance lobbyists to other influential Twitter accounts around the state, linking back to anonymous websites containing further details. Twitter realized the messages were spam and shut down the accounts two hours later, but by that point the messages had reached nearly 60,000 people. The sudden spike caused the attacks on Coakley to turn up in Google searches for her name, effectively gaming Google's real-time search functions. Scott Brown won the election due to a variety of factors, but Eni Mustafaraj and Panagiotis Metaxes of Wellseley College, who documented the incident, concluded that the promulgation of anti-Coakley messages through social networks highlighted future opportunities for "a small fraction of the population to hijack the trustworthiness of a search engine and propagate their messages to a huge audience for free, with little effort, and without trace." While the attacks on Coakley were based on a fundraiser she did indeed hold in Washington, hosted by lobbyists with health care clients, it's plausible the same methods could be used to spread blatant misinformation about a candidate.

More recently, a group of right-leaning users on the popular social news network Digg were accused of censoring from the site stories with a perceived liberal bias and promoting stories with a conservative slant through collective action. While the online identities of many of the so-called "Digg Patriots" were revealed, their motivations and affiliations with existing political organizations remain subject to speculation. "In a time when mainstream news organizations have already ceded a substantial chunk of their opinion-shaping influence to Web-based partisans on the left and right, does each side now feel entitled to its own facts as well?" asked Michael Hirschorn with regard to the Digg Patriots. "And thanks to the emergence of social media as the increasingly dominant mode of information dissemination, are we nearing a time when truth itself will become just another commodity to be bought and sold on the social-media markets?"

More troubling is the possibility that the story of the American Future Fund could become a common anecdote during election years. While electoral watchdogs focused on the flow of corporate resources into campaigns around the country during this past cycle, social media may prove the next hot topic in years to come. If the infiltration and manipulation of influential search engines and social networks is so simple, could social media eventually pose enough of a problem that we need laws and regulations to govern its use in campaigns? 


Filippo Menczer, Associate Professor of Informatics and Computer Science at the Indiana University, Bloomington, serves as the principal investigator for Truthy, a research project devoted to tracking the spread of memes online. Named after Stephen Colbert's from-the-gut "truthiness," the Truthy team uses an algorithm based on election-specific keywords and mood indicators -- a type of sentiment analysis very similar to the one used at the University of Indiana to predict changes in the stock market -- to follow political misinformation campaigns on Twitter. The Truthy team, inspired by the Massachusetts election, decided to track digital astroturf campaigns during election years.

"We have a 90 percent success rate at tracking this sort of abnormal behavior on social networks, and it happens frequently" says Menczer. "People are being manipulated without realizing it because a meme can be given instant global popularity by a high search engine ranking, in turn perpetuating a falsehood."

"If you think about how much putting an ad on TV costs, you could pay an army of people to post fake information and promote it through social networks," says Menczer, who, based on his research, anticipates future manipulation of the Twittersphere for political gains. "It's a form of information pollution. Spamming on social networks has very low cost and has the potential to influence a  large amount of people. From the point of view of someone running for office, it would be crazy NOT to use this system."

Accountability is a huge problem in the social media sphere, where anonymity is still easy to maintain. "If anything, this is in violation of Twitter terms of service.... but so what? You can just make another account. There's no accountability," says Menczer. "I think it's scary. It's extremely easy to fabricate news use these methods to manipulate the Web because people want to believe what they want to believe."

Much of social media remains untouched by campaign finance and transparency laws, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is seen by campaign legal experts as reluctant to regulate, does not seem eager to make new rules for the Web. Currently, social media is regarded as another subset of Internet communications; in 2006, the Federal Elections Commission concluded that finance laws apply to web advertisements and messages that appear on the sites of political organizations, but beyond those two categories, other types of Web-based activities go ungoverned by and large by federal law.

But campaign finance law in general regulates spending money in than effort to influence elections, and a coordinated effort to employ social media strategists would potentially come under federal purview, requiring that campaigns disclose who they're paying and what they're paying for, which could expose the inner workings of a surreptitious social media operations and provide more accountability for voters trying to navigate a sea of information pollution.

"The operative terms here are 'hiring' or 'paying' influencers in the social space," says Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel and FEC program director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC. "When big money changes hands, there's reason to regulate that activity, whatever it may be; the fact that it happens on the Internet doesn't really distinguish it from anything else. The way campaign finance law deals with Facebook is that I'm free to say whatever I want. I have a couple of hundreds of friends and while I may have a capacity to influence my friends' decisions in elections, I don't spend money and I don't sponsor status updates. But if I buy advertising from Facebook, federal laws do encompass that activity and justifiably so."

But in terms of the necessary conditions for disclosure, social media still exists in something of a gray area. "There is no requirement that a blogger who is also on a campaign payroll as a consultant disclose anything on a personal blog," Ryan tells me. "They would have to disclose with a 'paid for' if they are paid specifically to disseminate a particular message. But with things like blogs and social media, readers may not get a clear indication as to exactly whether a message is coming from a person as a personal blogger or as a paid consultant."

Ryan provides the example of White House Counsel Bob Bauer, who, prior to serving as the general counsel for Obama For America in 2008, wrote a blog about campaign finance law as an attorney. "There are a lot of other lawyers who blog about lawyers who work on money and politics issues and election law, and we have to ask: Are they doing so wearing their hat as working for a client or not?" says Ryan. "It's easier to track with lawyers who bill their hours. There are political consultants who wear a lot of different hats." In short, a staffer could plausibly run a coordinated spamming attack like that used in the Massachusetts election while claiming that it's something done while wearing the hat of a private citizen, rather than that of a paid staffer.

With the potential power and legal ambiguity surrounding social media in the election cycle, many anticipate a rise in future usage. "We expect that, unless addressed by the search engines, this practice will intensify during the next congressional elections in 2010," wrote Mustafarj and Metaxes in their report following Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. Filippo Menczer sees more coherent foundations for digital electioneering in place. "Sites like [the Heritage Foundation's] http://noenergytax.com/ are making astroturf into a 'fun' game where you compete for how much volume you generate in promoting a certain view (in this particular case it is opposition to cap & trade legislation, but it could be any policy issue)," Menczer wrote in an e-mail. "Social media consultants like DAG make the process easy and semi-automated. We're seeing instances of using crowd-sourcing to mass-create Twitter accounts; while this may or may not have been done by political activists, the door is open."
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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