Could Facebook Tip the Elections in the Final Countdown?

The Nov. 8 deadline is looming, and the polls are tight. As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump come head-to-head, the reality is, no one really knows what will happen.

The Nov. 8 deadline is looming, and the polls are tight. As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump come head-to-head, the reality is, no one really knows what will happen.

This might not be evident from your Facebook News Feed. It’s no secret that in this polarized world, our perceptions are colored by our social networks, our influencers, our friends and the online content we interact with. As the political warfare heats up on social media, interspersed with the most viral content from clickbait factories, this all comes together to paint a distorted picture.

Facebook plays a pivotal role in providing access to information. However, a multitude of factors come together to craft a customized narrative in our News Feeds. This makes it a powerful tool for the candidates and a lucrative platform for the clickbait factories that hook readers with the latest tales of Trump.

So how exactly are the candidates using Facebook? And could the social networking behemoth really be the deciding force to put the next U.S. president in the White House?

The power of a like

Our Facebook feeds have become a battleground for political discourse: From Trump’s declaration that President Barack Obama is the “founder of ISIS” to Clinton’s comments dismissing Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” new stories emerge every day, adding to the ongoing saga and painting the parties in a variety of shades.

Involvement of the media in political debate is nothing new. However, Facebook amplifies this when you consider its enormous reach and role as an intermediary between the public and the media.

On any social networking site, algorithms control the content that is visible. They act as gatekeepers to new discoveries and masses of information. Your personal slice of this larger reality comes down to your social circle, the pages you follow and the virality of posts that they promote.

Every time someone you know likes, shares or comments on a post, it is ranked and has a greater chance of making it into the News Feed. As this content is syphoned and prioritized, this creates a biased portrayal of the world.

A notable way of manipulating the system so that content is more likely to surface is through buying “fake” likes or followers to interact with pages and posts, helping to boost popularity.

According to Business Insider and experts from Vocativ, just 42 percent of Trump’s 1.7 million Facebook followers are from the U.S., and many originate from countries known for the phenomenon of “click farms.”

However, Trump is not the only presidential candidate that has been accused of buying likes to feed his social media campaigns. Clinton has a large proportion of likes in Baghdad. These places are known for large teams of people operating false accounts, liking and interacting to boost popularity.

Viral content from camp Trump

Pew Research Center examined the different approaches to social media campaigning, utilized by the frontrunners. The study revealed that although the Trump and Clinton camps both post with the same frequency, content and public reactions differ enormously.

While Clinton uses Facebook to draw attention to official campaign communications, 78 percent of Trump’s Facebook posts linked to news stories. These often feature Trump’s public advocates rousing support for the Republican candidate.

Trump posts evoke positively viral responses from the public, with the average Facebook post receiving 8,367 shares compared with just 1,636 for Clinton. Trump posts also generate increased conversation with an average of 5,230 comments, greatly contrasting Clinton with 1,729.

On Facebook, Trump supporters tower over team Clinton with a whopping 9.4 million likes on his Facebook page, more than double that of the Democrat nominee. And they are vocal, too.

But even the haters can fuel Trump’s reign over the News Feed: those that share and engage with this content, or follow Trump–even ironically–sharing these anecdotes with huge audiences and adding to his virality.

The New York Times’ John Herrman described a phenomenon of clickbait sites twinned with Facebook pages that propagate viral pseudo-political content.

Herrman highlights one individual, Terry Littlepage, with 50 Facebook pages–including The American Patriot and My Favorite Gun–that direct more than 10 million readers to sites that generate thousands of dollars in ad revenue. According to Littlepage, Trump’s virality is good for business.

Alleged human intervention and self-censorship

Facebook has always claimed political neutrality, and recent accusations of alleged human intervention to suppress news in May were met with fierce denial. However, as with any newsroom, human decisioning plays a large role. Leaked documents received by The Guardian detail a combination of predictive algorithms, user customization and the discretion of editors to surface newsworthy content.

Various actions also allow users to curate their media worlds–following campaign pages, publications, the friends you connect with and more. It is these actions that perpetuate a distorted world, feeding algorithms that have a far greater influence than any editorial selection process to promote trending news.

Some users have taken the idea of censorship to greater extremes, using sites like FriendsWhoLikeTrump.com to exclude this content by identifying and blocking friends, as the debate heats up. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Quartz and Mic have also published how-tos and tricks, helping users to unfollow news and cleansing their News Feeds of unfavorable content.

As Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey points out, “In an era where Americans are both more polarized than ever and more able to tailor their environments to their pre-existing views, standard disagreements have veered in an ugly, intolerant direction: one that’s inconsistent, critics argue, with our most fundamental democratic values.”

With so many ways of manipulating the content that is visible to online audiences, huge teams and new tech are heavily involved in not only promoting but also protecting campaigners. Technology today plays a huge role in politics, be this through discovery algorithms, data-mining comments to protect campaign pages or wide scale promotion and tricks on sites like Facebook. Combine this with tools such as the soon-to-be-released candidate position feature via the Issues tab for political pages and the “I Voted” button, and this also has the potential to incite voting action. The digital currency of a like now has the power to influence a vote.

Could Facebook decide the next U.S. head of state? Of course it could. The network is the world’s greatest social facilitator, highlighting trending topics and viral posts. With human curation on top, there is enormous power in the platform. But amid the scandal of Facebook’s alleged editorial intervention, it is the tricks of campaigners and users to distort their worlds that have the greatest impact, coloring our perceptions.

Yet social media platforms by their very nature actually have the power to enable the reverse, to balance content and empower democracy. Consider this for a moment the next time you like a Trump-ism or share the latest installment in the 2016 election scandals.

Jenny Wolfram is the founder and CEO of BrandBastion, which protects brand reputation, ad performance and copyright on social media.

Image courtesy of patrimonio designs ltd/Shutterstock.