The U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (Whitaker, 2018). They did so by leaking stolen emails and inflaming tensions on social media. Congress and Robert Mueller investigate Russian interference involving whether the campaign of Donald Trump conspired with Russia. The 2016 presidential election took the world by storm creating a key moment of the twenty-first century. There has been an array of groups who are working to make sense of this election and what it means for the future of democratic life. Lots of explanations have been created and shared through public discourse. What has been discovered is how social media helped with such meddling. The media has a lot of control as to what viewers see and think. Such control shows how media specifically social media played an important role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
When the internet became a mass consumer-oriented media in the mid-1990s, tremendous hype surrounded its potential for realizing a new form of political participation (Boczkowski, & Papacharissip, 2018). Many early internet advocates saw the rise of social media as the ultimate delivery into the public sphere. Early supporters saw online communities as enabling a powerful form of bottom-up democratic participation that could challenge traditional forms of journalism. After the outcome of the 2016 election, many surprised political pundits, progressives and liberals scrambled to identify culprits
In addition to challenging the value of the Electoral College, some questioned the role fake news played in the spread of disinformation. Experts point to suggest that the internet has played an integral role in the false sharing of information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The defeat of Clinton at the hands of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has generated an outcry from scholars who point to the role of social media in influencing the results of the election (Boczkowski, & Papacharissip, 2018). Arguments as to why social media might have contributed to President Trump’s election have included the sway of fake news articles, algorithms that create filter bubbles, the influence of strong political opinions expressed through social media and how social media sorts people into echo chambers that limit their exposer to different points of view (Boczkowski, & Papacharissip, 2018). No one is immune to these points of view.
Social media has generated a new medium that has changed mainstream media. Now anyone can document information and share it with the masses. Social media sites can often be used as the medium that users can post and share whatever they want. In some cases, users might be sharing information that might be misleading in nature without even knowing. Stories created with the intention to deceive are called fake news (Jack, 2017). Fake news is not something new. However, it has been a phrase that has had much attention recently. Donald Trump and his team quickly repurposed the term by calling several mainstream news outlets such as CNN, and the New York Times (Boczkowski, & Papacharissip, 2018). The problem of fake news has become a large issue in an era of social media. Lots of information that people come across on social media may appear to be true but, often are not (“Explained: What Is Fake News,” 2018). An issue with social media sites is that they allow users to share and post information that can be distributed to a large number of people that sometimes are not true. There is also a growing concern as to how to control fake news stories. Social media sites such as Facebook have been called on to stop such stories from being shared on their site.
Facebook officials revealed that during the run-up to the election they had several hundred accounts that they believe were created by a Russian company (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). The company was linked to the Russian government that bought $100,000 in ad space pushing disruptive ads during and after the election (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). On both Facebook and Twitter, Russian trolls were shown using automated accounts called bots, who sent out divisive messages against Democrats, particularly in opposition. While on Twitter, hundreds of accounts were used to spread anti-Clinton messages as well as share leaked material obtained by Russian hackers (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). Research by FireEye found messages that showed “clear signs of intermittent human control” (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). One giveaway was when hundreds of accounts tweeted within seconds of each other and were sent out in alphabetical order. Lee Foster leads the FireEye team which is examining Russian interference whose team discovered hundreds of accounts tweeting #WarAgainstDemocrats. Most of the accounts that tweeted that hashtag had been hijacked or fraudulent. One Twitter user named Rachel Usedom had her account taken over and renamed @ClintonCurruption. She did not even know that it happened until she was told by Twitter officials. Twitter, unlike Facebook, does not require real names and does not prohibit automated accounts (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). Therefore, allowing Russian bots to send tweets out on a massive scale.
Thirteen Russian nationals have been charged with illegally trying to disrupt the 2016 elections (Shane, S., & Goel, 2017). Some of the ways they did so were with fraudulent social media accounts, creating political rallies, and online political advertisement. The individuals in question have been charged with creating hundreds of social media accounts and impersonating fictitious Americans. Also, in the indictment which stated that they staged political rallies around the country from June to November (Parlapiano, & Lee, 2018). The rallies were promoted through social media channels which were accounts registered under fake American aliases. The indictment also points to the group who paid for advertisements on social media (Parlapiano, & Lee, 2018). They expressively supported Donald Trump and opposed Hillary Clinton.
American democracy has been struck by changes in media technology (Allcot & Gentzknow, 2017). In the new millennium, the growth of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has a different structure than previous media technologies. Users can spread content with no significant third-party filtering, fact-checking, or editorial judgment (Allcot & Gentzknow, 2017). The ability to share anything online in some cases allow false or conspiracy-driven news to the masses. One extreme example of this occurred during the election. Conspiracy theorists spread a story about Hillary Clinton over blogs and other forms of social media. The internet allowed such a story to spread rapidly through its interconnected structure. Conspiracy theories are defined by Keeley (1999) as “a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) regarding the significant causal agency of relatively small group of persons—the conspirators—acting in secret.” The conspiracy theory shared was known as Pizzagate. The main theory revolved around a claim that Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operation at the Comet Ping Pong in Washington, DC (Marwick, & Lewis, n.d., p.6). The story gained traction after evidence was discovered that Clinton sometimes goes to that restaurant. Further, WikiLeaks published hacked emails from the Clinton campaign that included conversations with the restaurant’s owner about a fundraiser for the Clinton campaign (Marwick, & Lewis, n.d., p.7). The conspiracy theorists along with people who shared the story fueled such allegations that can be categorized as disinformation. Disinformation is information that is shared deliberately to mislead readers. Disinformation in some cases creates propaganda.
Propaganda is designed in order to shape and alter attitudes and behaviors. Fake news grew in attention during the election. Fake news after the election had been identified as misleading propaganda that spread through social media. Apart from Russia’s complex propaganda system including bots, teams of paid human trolls, and networks of websites that were linked to their right-wing agenda (Timberg, 2018). Russia has denied any involvement in the meddling in the 2016 election.
Confidently the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency jointly stated with “high confidence” that the Russian government ordered an influence campaign during the election. Since the election, many have argued that social media played an integral role in exposing people to fake news. The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election reflects a troubling combination of rising trends in political communication namely, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fake news. These developments are worrisome because they stand in opposition to central principles of democracy. The internet has fundamentally transformed the way people receive information. One downfall that social media brings is that it allows content to be shared easily with a large number of people. A lesson that was learned from the 2016 election is that some news stories are deliberately written to deceive. Another kind of fake news is known as disinformation which was shared on Facebook and Twitter to change people’s opinions about a candidate. The information that was shared was done by the use of bots. Bots had a large role to play in the run-up to the election. Many hundred fake accounts were used to spread pro-Trump propaganda. In an era of new media, journalism is not dead. There is a need to adapt to changes that social media brings. The changes happening in the news industry are brought on by rapid advances in technology that should not be seen as a threat to mainstream media but instead complementary.
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