WASHINGTON — A study concluding it’s almost impossible to persuade voters to change their views in today’s highly polarized America raises provocative questions about how much impact foreign influence campaigns on Facebook might actually have had in 2016.
“Our best estimate of the direct effects of campaign contact on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is essentially zero,” David Broockman of Stanford University and Joshua Kalla of the University of California-Berkeley said, summarizing their results earlier this week. “Our findings throw cold water on the notion that it is easy, overall, for campaigns to persuade voters.”
But researchers believe that political advertising and campaign efforts may pay off in a different way— by increasing (or suppressing) voter turnout.
The researchers’ analysis of 49 field experiments “conducted with real-world political campaigns,” including nine they themselves conducted over the past two years with labor group Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, found no net impact on voters’ choices.
It’s a conclusion that calls into question the basis of a vast industry of political consulting that pours millions of dollars into campaign advertisements and contacts — and one that’s especially intriguing in light of fresh attention
The ineffectiveness of voter contacts, the authors conclude, “may help explain why campaigns increasingly focus on rousing the enthusiasm of existing supporters instead of reaching across party lines to win over new supporters.”
The core of the debate over Russian ads on Facebook may not be about what they did to swing votes but rather how they shaped perceptions of candidates and the political environment in such a way as to amp up turnout or decrease votes.
The question of voter suppression is much on the mind of those looking at what happened last year on Facebook.
“In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
Studies dating back to 2012 have shown profound impacts from Facebook when it comes to turnout. “About 340,000 extra people turned out to vote in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections because of a single election-day Facebook message,”
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted in a Facebook post Wednesday that Facebook’s efforts to transform the electorate have continued to have real-world impact. “We ran ‘get out the vote’ efforts that helped as many as 2 million people register to vote,”
“The data we have has always shown that our broader impact — from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote — played a far bigger role in this election” than “misinformation” on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote. As well, “Campaigns spent hundreds of millions advertising online to get their messages out even further. That’s 1000x more than any problematic ads we’ve found.”
The scale of formal campaign spending on Facebook vastly dwarfs the foreign outlays identified so far.
Former Trenton, N.J., deputy attorney general Joel Winston in November similarly pointed to the Trump campaign’s own actions on Facebook as being more important than the question of fake news, then dominating the conversation about digital dirty tricks. “The Trump campaign used data to target African-Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election, quietly launching the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history,” he wrote in a
The Trump campaign had boasted immediately before the election about its Facebook voter-suppression efforts. “We have three major voter-suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official
Voter suppression is easier to achieve than it might seem. Another study published this week showed a substantial dropoff in voting by low-income and African-American registered voters in response to the Wisconsin’s voter ID law — even when the people in question had acceptable identification documents and should have been able to vote if they’d tried to.
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