Science: Few Voters Know How Social Media Are Manipulated During Campaigns

Although two out of three Americans reportedly use social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, researchers say that few users appreciate the ways that social media are manipulated to influence voters and affect the outcome of elections.

U.S. presidential candidates and political parties are embracing social media to rally support, raise funds, and influence the public perception of their opponents during the 2012 campaign more than in any previous election. Wellesley College computer scientists Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj suggest that a better understanding of how manipulation occurs may help voters—and the media—to identify the truth behind political messages sent through social media.

“Manipulation of social media affects our perception of electoral candidates,” said Metaxas during a Science Podcast interview. “The vast majority of people using social media are just not aware of this manipulation, and as a result our decision-making can be compromised, especially at the polls.”

In the 26 October issue of Science, the researchers describe some of the ways that propagandists, in the form of spammers, deploy 21st-century weaponry like Google bombs and Twitter bombs. These programs—which skew the results of search engines and send out large quantities of tweets, respectively—have been used to influence voters in the past.

For example, the term “miserable failure” was once artificially associated with the Web page of former President George W. Bush by a Web spammer who forced a search engine to give high relevancy to search results that would otherwise be unrelated. In a similar example, the world “waffles” was linked to U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

“One common form of manipulation is through our perception of candidates’ popularity on social media,” Metaxas explained. “We tend to think that if a candidate is more popular on, say, Facebook, or if he has more ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ than his opponents, then he probably has a greater chance of being elected. But these numbers do not really represent a random sample of the likely voters, by any means—and they get manipulated.

“For example, a few weeks ago it was reported that Governor [Mitt] Romney’s Twitter followers increased in a single day by over 100,000,” said Metaxas. “But, when people took a closer look, they realized that most were fake. They were automatically generated by computer programs.”

Search engines such as Google have adjusted their ranking algorithms in an attempt to defuse malicious programs that target congressional candidates by restricting the selection of their top search results. But the authors say that the public should be aware of how social media manipulation works—and be prepared to search for the truth behind the messages.

Read the abstract, “Social Media and the Elections,” by Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj.

Listen to a related Science Podcast.