In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia used social media platforms to confuse, distract, and discourage various communities from going to the polls. Its operation was sweeping and systemic, and it touched all major companies in the social media ecosystem: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Medium, Vine, Meetup, and Pokemon Go. The operation reached 126 million people on Facebook, posted 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploaded 1,000 videos to YouTube, and reached over 20 million users on Instagram. Though the scale of the operation was massive, Russia’s success was based on its ability to influence a relatively small number of people within in key battleground states. The election was effectively decided by just over 100,000 votes in three states: Pennsylvania (68,000 votes), Michigan (11,000 votes), and Wisconsin (27,000 votes).

America Remains Vulnerable in 2020

The success of Russia’s social media operation in 2016 has bolstered its own ambitions, made it smarter on election-meddling tactics, and it encouraged other bad actors to enter the fray. In 2020, there will be a combination of foreign-sponsored and domestic-sponsored bad actors using social media to manipulate Americans and influence the outcome of the election. Some of the online activities will include microtargeting—data-driven targeting of a specific community within a particular city in a battleground state—with a focused and tailored online campaign. Broader online campaigns will target multiple communities across multiple states. In some instances, the goal of these campaigns will be to sow discord and encourage voter suppression, while in others the goal will be to encourage voter turnout for a third-party candidate. The objective of this Capstone project is to understand how are domestic actors spending money on political and social issues ads on social media. What are the prevalent narratives and tropes? Is there any evidence of disinformation and manipulation operations? And, if so, what should tech companies be doing in the run up to 2020 elections in the U.S to tackle these issues?