Facebook – The World’s Largest Communication Lab?

In the last several years, it has become increasingly apparent that social media and the rapid proliferation of online communication has had a significant influence on the U.S. political process. Despite the ongoing tendency to refer to the Internet as a “virtual world” that somehow exists wholly separately from the so-called “real world” the fact remains that the two spaces–online and offline–influence one another much more than we may like to admit.

We don’t use the expression ‘IRL.’ We say ‘AFK.’ But that’s another issue. We think that the Internet is for real.

– Peter Sunde, Pirate Bay Co-Founder

In the 2016 election, several Russian-backed corporations and organizations bought Facebook ads to deliver highly-targeted political messages to specific groups of Americans, with the ultimate goal of influencing voter behavior and sowing divisiveness throughout the nation. Earlier this year, Congress made public a sample of the Facebook ads that had been identified as part of this Russian influence campaign.

I have been incredibly interested in the effectiveness of these social media campaigns, especially given the low costs, low barriers of entry, and precise level of targeting that is made possible by the social media companies themselves. For instance, some of these Facebook ads incredibly specific targeting metadata, such as:

Location: United States
Age: 16 - 65+
Language: English (UK) or English (US)
Placements: News Feed on desktop computers or News Feed on mobile devices
People Who Match: Interests: Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, Police misconduct, African-American culture, African-American Civil Rights Movement ( 1954-68), African-American history, Black Consciousness Movement, Martin Luther King Ill, Stop Police Brutality or Black (Color)

Screenshot 2018-11-10 13.26.45

This particular post (which was heavily redacted before publication, to remove personally identifying information), cost 318.43 Russian Rubles – just about $4.69. For that low cost, it got 17,839 Ad Impressions and 2,945 Ad Clicks – and reached a highly specific group of individuals.

While this level of metadata is incredibly useful, I have been thinking of ways to further measure the “effectiveness” of these social media posts. How much do they actually influence voters to change their minds? How does the user’s own political beliefs influence how the social media post is read? What if the same post was presented to someone with opposing political affiliations; how different would the effect be.

Answering these sorts of questions would provide significant insight to the growing power (for better or for worse) that these social media behemoths have. I think that understanding the potential of social media for influencing human behavior is one of the most pressing issues of the coming years, and will only become increasingly important as the developments of new media continue.

Of course, to test those kinds of questions, we need some sort of way to gather a large number of participants in a semi-controlled setting, and have some sort of a mechanism to measure their responses to given messages. And perhaps we would want to have some means to predict their own political beliefs and interests, and use that to test different types of these social media posts. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I have reached a somewhat chilling conclusion; perhaps the best way to study the effects of Facebook’s platform is to use the Facebook platform itself.

Facebook has quietly become the largest testing ground for human behavior and communication. From a population of millions of users, it is possible to select for highly specific characteristics, present a given message (usually for only a few cents), and retrieve all sorts of useful viewership and response data.

But how can we critique and problematize the tools and platforms of social media, when we’re using those same tools and platforms to do that very research? How can we critique a system that we are active participants in? These are questions that I have landed on, and hope to continue chewing on and working on through my ongoing studies and academic career.

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