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Big Tech, Fake News, and Political Advertising

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

Social media has had a huge impact on politics by shaping public discourse and revamping civic engagement. However, as we have seen with foreign interference in elections, social media is an outlet for everyone, including what many refer to as online “bad actors.” Here, we’ll look at how big tech companies (namely Facebook, Google, and Twitter) have been taxed with combating the spread of fake news and disinformation ahead of the 2020 election. And, more specifically, we’ll examine their role in safeguarding political speech while also acting to dismantle false or deceptive political advertisements shared on social media.

Fears concerning disinformation campaigns that target voters and our elections were chiefly birthed from the revelation of a Russian state-backed online influence operation that maliciously used social media to interfere in the 2016 election. According to a Monmouth University Poll from March of 2018, most Americans (87%) believed outside groups or agents were actively trying to plant fake news stories on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and 71% felt this was a serious problem. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) believed that social media outlets were mostly responsible for the dissemination of fake news, although a majority (60%) said they were partly responsible but other media sources were more to blame. In addition, over two-thirds of Americans (69%) felt that Facebook and YouTube weren’t doing enough to stop the spread of fake news.

In the lead up to the 2020 election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken responsibility for eliminating social media accounts operated by foreign actors that intend to mislead the citizens of other countries. For example, Facebook has focused on removing accounts that take part in what it deems “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” or networks of accounts that are intentionally trying to mislead others. According to an article on Facebook Newsroom, Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, said, “In the past year alone, we have announced and taken down over 50 networks worldwide for engaging in CIB, including ahead of major democratic elections.”

Deceptive practices on social media platforms are not only attributed to foreign agents, but also American citizens. Gleicher said, “While significant public attention has been on foreign governments engaging in these types of violations, over the past two years, we have also seen non-state actors, domestic groups and commercial companies engaging in this behavior.”

Recently, the issue of false ads was brought to the forefront when a controversial Trump campaign advertisement about Joe Biden was published on Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube. The ad has been largely regarded as spreading false, unfounded claims about the former vice president’s past involvement in Ukraine. Biden’s campaign urged the social media giants to remove the advertisement from their platforms, but they declined.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been under fire for this decision. In a speech on free expression given at Georgetown University after his decision, Zuckerberg said, “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.” Also in the speech, the Facebook CEO revealed that the company does not fact-check political ads.

Since then, Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny and, according to an article posted to Facebook Newsroom on October 21, they are looking to make some changes to address the problem. The article reads, “Over the next month, content across Facebook and Instagram that has been rated false or partly false by a third-party fact-checker will start to be more prominently labeled so that people can better decide for themselves what to read, trust and share.”  Facebook’s plan to protect the integrity of the U.S. 2020 elections includes fighting foreign interference campaigns, increasing transparency by showing how much presidential candidates have spent on ads, and reducing misinformation by improving its fact-checking labels and investing in media literacy programs.

In response to Zuckerberg’s defense of Facebook’s policy, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will do the opposite and not allow any political advertising on its platform starting at the end of the month. Dorsey explained the decision by highlighting some factors that should be considered in the ongoing debate, tweeting, “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

While both Twitter and Facebook have addressed their platform’s policies on political advertisements, Google has refrained from commenting on YouTube’s policy. According to Google’s transparency report, they received around $126 million in revenue from political advertisements since May 31st 2018 running 172,308 ads. Also, findings from Quartz show that the Trump campaign’s controversial advertisement appeared more often on YouTube than it did on Facebook.

Some of the Democratic candidates for president have signaled their frustration with the social media giants. Leading democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren targeted Facebook by posting her own purposely false advertisement on the platform stating that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Trump’s reelection in order to see if it would be approved (it was). Another candidate, Kamala Harris, urged Twitter to suspend President Trump’s twitter account partly due to a series of tweets about the Ukraine scandal whistleblower and the impeachment inquiry in which, she believes, the president violated Twitter’s terms of service by using the platform to obstruct justice and incite violence.

While big tech companies are taxed with disrupting foreign disinformation campaigns, they have also had to focus on domestic issues such as the viral spread of misinformation. Another concern has appeared over their political advertising policies as well and the debate over how social media companies should approach political speech on their platforms. Is it better to not fact-check political social media advertisements, ban them altogether, or is there some middle ground that can be deemed effective at safeguarding political speech online?

New Jersey’s legislative election and 2020 implications

By Patrick Murray

Was New Jersey’s election good news for Republicans? As you may have guessed from the way I phrased that question, the answer is both yes and no.

First, let’s take nothing away from the Republican legislative victories.  They held onto seats that were targeted by Democrats and also knocked off Democratic incumbents in at least one district, all while being outspent by a lot.  But the fact that this outcome – i.e. the governor’s party losing a couple of seats in a midterm – was not something we were really considering before the election says something about the state of politics in the age of Trump.

Republicans won by keeping their races local.  Gov. Phil Murphy, who has middling approval ratings, was a factor, but not the major one. For example, the Democrats’ vote-by-mail effort, while formidable statewide, did not materialize into a large advantage where it counted.  And Democrats’ attack ads in the 1st District seems to have backfired.

Taken in isolation the result was “normal” for a midterm, but it does seem like New Jersey Republicans overperformed and/or state Democrats underperformed when viewed in the context of what happened elsewhere in the country. This includes an apparent Democratic gubernatorial victory in Kentucky and an unusually close race in Mississippi, as well as Democrats picking up both chambers of the Virginia legislature in a midterm with a sitting governor of the same party (who is best known nationally for wearing blackface).

Keep in mind, though, that New Jersey Democrats had already picked up a number of “red” seats in prior legislative elections. They had already reached a saturation point in the size of their majority – unlike Virginia, which has only recently been trending more Democratic.  Also, the Virginia race was nationalized, whereas New Jersey’s was not.  Which means if you start digging past the superficial results, there are some factors in the New Jersey results that actually confirm what we saw elsewhere.

First, political engagement has increased in the Trump era.  Yes, turnout was low in New Jersey, but it was significantly higher than the last legislative midterm in 2015.  Part of this has to do with the state’s new automatic vote-by-mail law, but part is a sign of the times. But since New Jersey’s races weren’t nationalized to the extent they were in other states, our increase in turnout was not as high as elsewhere.

Second, Trump Republicans did well in Trump areas (see LD1 and LD2), but not in moderate Republican areas. This is similar to what we saw in the other states’ voting yesterday.  In New Jersey, Republican incumbents were able localize their races by reclaiming the party brand from the president (at least temporarily), while Trump-aligned independents did little damage to the GOP ticket in LD21 and LD8.  Democrats in the other states did better because those races had higher stakes that spurred turnout among Democrats in suburban areas.  This was not the case in New Jersey.

What this tells me about 2020 is that Jeff Van Drew could have a tough reelection bid in CD2 – even with the attempt to inoculate himself by voting against the impeachment inquiry.  Those types of calculations rarely help if the political environment is against you (cf. John Adler and his ACA vote). Yesterday’s results also means that Andy Kim will need an even greater suburban turnout in the Burlington portion of CD3 to offset Trump’s strength in the Ocean County portion.  On the other hand, Mikie Sherrill (CD11) and Tom Malinowski (CD7) probably can count on stronger Democrat turnout in their districts next year.  Results in hotly contested local races (such as the strong Democratic performance in Somerset County) seem to support the idea that there is Democratic vote to be tapped that wasn’t this year in districts with popular moderate Republican state legislators.  This is not to say that anything is guaranteed, just that the evidence does not support one can count on a return to Republican voting patterns in those suburbs.

In the end, it is not the night New Jersey Democrats wanted and the state Republican Party got a reprieve from the ever-present death watch.  But the results also suggest that in a national context, Democrats will continue to do well in the suburbs while Republican success may be limited to the most Trump-friendly parts of the state.

What does this mean for Phil Murphy?

The governor and first lady, Tammy Murphy, made a mad scramble to hit as many parts of the state as possible in the last days of the race. This was a smart move with little downside for him – even though most of the candidates they were stumping for would have preferred to use that time on last minute GOTV efforts rather than gubernatorial photo ops.  While Murphy’s direct impact on the outcome was limited, if there had been an upset he could have claimed credit for the victory.  On the other hand, in the worst case legislative scenario for Democrats (which is what actually happened), he would have been blamed regardless of whether he went on the campaign trail or not.  

Republicans aren’t the only ones who will be calling this “the Murphy midterm.” You can expect the South Jersey wing of the Democratic Party to start saying that as well. [Although Murphy can counter this with the fact that the only Dem losses were in South Jersey.] All this is a lead-up to the big prize in January – i.e. who will head the state Democratic Party.  The anti-Murphy Democrats will attempt to use these results to rally committee members to oust the sitting chairman John Currie as ineffective.  This is one of the reasons why Murphy ended his Election Day in Somerville.  The Democratic bright spot was success at the county and local level.  The support of these leaders – particularly key players like Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman, and state vice chair, Peg Schaffer – will be crucial to Murphy keeping Currie in his position.

Halloween 2019 – Costume Trends and Safety Tips

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

Halloween is almost here, and according to the Monmouth University Poll that is good news for the 45% of Americans who say Halloween is either their favorite or one of their favorite holidays. Here, I will discuss some of the trends, safety considerations, and news surrounding the spooky fall holiday.

The poll finds that 29% of adults plan on dressing up for Halloween this year. If you are looking for a unique costume, check out Google Trend’s “Frightgeist” website to see what to avoid. It shows the most searched for costumes on both a national and local level, as well as each costume’s trending status over time and the popularity of different costume categories. At the moment, searches for costumes related to the horror movie IT take the top spot while witch and Spiderman costumes trail in second and third, respectively.

An annual survey by the National Retail Federation projects Halloween spending to reach 8.8 billion in 2019, slightly behind the 9 billion consumers spent last year and 9.1 billion in 2017. The survey also shows the trend of dressing up pets for Halloween. Americans are expected to spend $490 million on costumes for their pets, with the most popular being pumpkins, hot dogs and superheroes. Overall, the NRF survey found that consumers plan to spend 2.6 billion on Halloween candy this year.

The Monmouth poll finds that out of eight top-selling Halloween candies, a plurality of Americans (36%) pick Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as their favorite, while Snickers (18%) place second and M&M’s (11%) take third. Whether you grab the candy mix bags from Walmart or splurge on packs of full-size candy bars, make sure you stock up on enough. According to the poll seven-in-ten parents and caregivers report that their children plan to go trick-or-treating this year.

Among those (70%) who say their children plan to go trick-or-treating, the poll finds almost all children (95%) and even most teenagers (76%) will be accompanied by an adult. To help keep children safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published some important safety considerations. They advise parents to rethink letting children wear masks as it can obstruct their vision, making sure their costumes fit appropriately to avoid trips and falls, giving children glow sticks or donning them with reflective tape if they plan to go out later in the evening or at night, and purchasing fire-resistant costumes, wigs, and accessories.

In an effort to address safety concerns regarding motor vehicle accidents on Halloween and make celebrating more accessible to other age groups, the Halloween and Costume Association started a petition in 2018 on to move Halloween from October 31st to the last Saturday of October. The petition would be sent to the president for his consideration if their goal number of signatures is met. In July, the petition was updated to reflect concerns over the holiday’s historical significance and cultural and religious ties. Now, the petition calls for the creation of a separate National Trick or Treat Day to be held on the last Saturday of October in addition to Halloween, “so families across the country can participate in community parades, throw neighborhood parties and opt for daytime Trick or Treating.”

Not only does the petition aim to reduce the number of accidents involving cars and kids, but it is also trying to make the holiday more accessible to other age groups other than children. This effort may reflect the poll’s finding that just about three-in-five (58%) adults aged 18-34 said Halloween was either their favorite holiday or one of their favorite holidays. The poll also finds that half of those aged 18-34 plan to wear a costume.

Changing the date on which Halloween trick-or-treating takes place is not unheard of. One example was after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when former NJ Governor Chris Christie signed an executive order that postponed Halloween to the following Monday due to unsafe conditions caused by the storm.

Trunk or Treat events also uphold safety priorities and act as a safer alternative to door to door trick-or-treating. These events are usually held prior to Halloween in blocked off parking lots and are hosted by the community, local schools, or local churches. It is praised as being more convenient for parents and, more importantly, safer for children. This year, Monmouth University will be hosting its Trunk or Treat event on 11/3 at 12-2 p.m. in lot 16. You can also find a list of other Trunk or Treat events happening all over NJ here.

Whether you enjoy decorating your home with spooky decorations, taking your children trick-or-treating, watching scary movies, or attending a Halloween costume party – have fun, be safe, and Happy Halloween!

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