Social Media and Elections – A Reflection

It’s been a little more than 6 months since news broke that (allegedly) Russian backed online hacktivists targeted US voters across several social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube.  [You can read the comprehensive timeline here, which traces these types of activities back to a Ukrainian election in 2014.]  By current accounts, the total budget spent on these ads equaled less than $500K over the course of approximately a year and a half.

Now that everyone else has weighed in on this topic, I thought that I’d share some of my thoughts on the matter.

  1. This Isn’t A Surprise.  Fake accounts, “fake news”, and online social engineering are not new activities – they’ve been going on long before the 2014 Ukrainian election referenced in the previously linked Mashable article above.  Foreign powers trying to influence elections isn’t new either.  And if we look closely (especially at “arms length” 501 c 3s), we’d likely find these same practices being conducted domestically, even between same party candidates in primary elections.  Sadly, these practices also span beyond elections; deceptive practices in marketing have been going on for decades if not centuries.
  2. The Influence in the Election of 2016 is Questionable.   Even with hyper targeting, a $500K media budget spent over more than a year isn’t that big.  Having run large campaigns before, I question the ultimate reach and the potential influence these campaigns had … especially during an election season when ad rates are inflated based upon increased demand.Political campaigns are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on online advertising.  If an election could be won with less than $500K in spend, publishers have bigger issues to worry about.

    This doesn’t make election tampering right, by any means.  Interference at any level is abhorrent, whether it is had the desired outcome or not.

  3. This Could Have Been Easily Prevented.  Dunn & Bradstreet, Experian, TransUnion (among others) have business databases which could have been used to verify the legitimacy of these ad accounts.  This first line of defense could have further been strengthened through a more stringent ad review policy.  With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, this is an issue that can easily be managed through industry wide self policing.

    In addition to validating the advertiser, publishers need be transparent about the source of the ad, and the details of the advertisement.

  4. This Won’t Be The Last Time.  Some bad actors, foreign and domestic, will use every tool at their disposal to impact elections.  So unfortunately, while the tactics may change, the target will likely not.  And ultimately (as with all political marketing material) it is up to the voter to actively question all information so that they can cast an informed vote.

Everyone deserves a fair and transparent election process, free of interference both domestically and internationally.  And hopefully the outcome of this controversy is a more fair and transparent election process.


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