What kind of influence does social media have over U.S. elections?

The Nov. 3 Presidential Election had major impacts on social media and how platforms chose to educate its users. Millions of people tuned in to Twitter and other social media outlets on election night to get by-the-second updates. These platforms focused on one thing this year: don’t let the misinformation storm of 2016 happen again.

Click for PDF file

Getting your news from Instagram or Facebook isn’t always the best idea because not everything has been fact-checked but social media attempted to be more reliable. Twitter began putting warning labels on tweets that contained false or disputed information and added an extra step in the retweeting process. Instagram and Facebook added banners to the top of their apps that directed people to dependable voting information. Even Snapchat added a feature to remind users to check their registration status.

In 2020, social media users emphasized the importance of checking media outlets’ biases before sharing their content. People knowingly spread misinformation in the last presidential election. “Fake news” caught everyone off-guard which meant you could share false information without feeling compelled to correct their mistakes. If an individual shares misinformation now, social media platforms caution other users not to spread it before it goes viral. Plus, sharing false information can damage a person’s credibility.

 Dale Blasingame, an assistant professor of practice in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State, suggests that maybe “[we’ve] educated ourselves to be a little bit more leery of what we see on socials.” According to an MIT study about social media and elections, misinformation peaks during presidential election years and people might have been more prepared for it this year.

 There was a surge in misinformation spread immediately following election night. This was in part due to the President of the United States sharing multiple articles from extreme far-right news outlets, specifically Breitbart. Not only was he sharing false content, he was undermining the entire voting system by questioning the results before they were even announced.

Speaking with Peyton Chesser, a law student at South Texas College of Law, explains why people shouldn’t be worried about these legal battles.

 “None of it is looking promising. His stuff is being filed and it’s being dismissed in a couple of hours which is a huge deal. The courts are saying he doesn’t have a point,” Chesser said. “The stuff that we have the president tweeting is not the same as what’s being filed and what’s actually going on in the courtrooms which is a huge source of misinformation right there.”

When President Trump is playing a role in the spread of misinformation on social media platforms, it can be difficult to do damage control. Since Nov. 3, he’s tweeted out more false information and it’s still up on Twitter. Examples of this include him tweeting he won the election on Nov. 15 yet again after experts called it on Nov. 7. Nearly every tweet he’s sent out since election night has included some variation of a warning label. This brings in the question: are social media platforms really doing enough to stop the spread?

“It’s at least encouraging that the platforms realize there’s a problem. Whether they’re doing enough to fix it is a whole other topic to be discussed. And I don’t know if they can fix it,” Blasingame said.

Click for PDF file

Blasingame suggests that the leadership within social media platforms may be the deciding factor in whether or not a company chooses to take a definitive stance.

“I think Zuckerberg [from Facebook] is looking at this from a very business-focused, bottom-line focused perspective,” Blasingame said. “I do think Jack [from Twitter] has a bit more of a, ‘what’s our effect on humanity?’ perspective than Zuckerberg.”

“I think we’re stuck with [misinformation]. We’re just going to have to be better about how we teach people what to believe and what not to believe,” Bryce Lacy said.

Lacy has worked on Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 senate run as a field manager in Harris County, as well as Carol Alvarado’s field director in her 2018 senate run, and later joined O’Rourke’s 2019 presidential campaign creating digital ads in addition to managing a social media account for a political organization called “PAC That A$$” on Twitter.

Misinformation isn’t going away anytime soon, if at all. It’s important to keep these few tips in mind when trying to sort through news:

  • Double and triple-check statistics in an article.
  • When you see a breaking news headline, check other media outlets to see if reputable news sources are reporting the same thing.
  • Don’t get all your news in one spot!
  • Use social media to see what’s trending, then go do your own research.

FactCheck.org is a good website to look at when determining a news articles’ authenticity. Canadian-owned Reuters is a neutral media outlet with reliable stories. In general, it’s a good idea to see if a wide variety of media outlets are reporting on a story to, 1) make sure it’s actually happening and, 2) to get different perspectives on a situation.