The Facebook Election Machine

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of August 22-26, 2016

As the 2016 Presidential primaries were starting in February, we looked at the digital tools offered by Facebook and Google to help voters gain information -- and be reached by candidates. Then, we were worried about people who don’t have Internet access or, god forbid, don’t use Facebook. A few articles we read this week now makes us more concerned for the people who do use Facebook.

Obviously, even back in February we knew that convenient access to political news and debate through Facebook comes with some cost -- political spin, intrusive ads, and reduced privacy. And we knew then that news outlets were losing their primacy in political discourse -- Internet search results and ‘trends’ are now as integral as old-fashioned polls. In this atmosphere, we wondered, whose voices are being amplified? A set of articles gives us a peek behind the curtain.

Facebook’s Political Categorization of Users
A New York Times article on August 23 revealed that Facebook categorizes users by its determination of a user’s political leanings. And it is easy for users to see their label. (To see yours, go to and under the “Interests” header, click the “Lifestyle and Culture” tab.) Sure, you stated your political preference on your Facebook profile page, but the social media giant further refines your political views based on the pages that you like. If you like a pro-Hillary Clinton page, for example, Facebook might categorize you as a liberal. As Jeremy Merrill writes:

The information is valuable. Advertisers, including many political campaigns, pay Facebook to show their ads to specific demographic groups. The labels Facebook assigns to its users help campaigns more precisely target a particular audience. For instance, Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign has paid for its ads to be shown to those who Facebook has labeled politically moderate. Campaigns can also use the groupings to show different messages to different supporters. They may want to show an ad to their hard-core supporters, for example, that is unlike an ad targeted at people just tuning in to the election.

The categorization of users and the customization of political ads to make them “more relevant” is an interesting shift: users now receive specific messages from campaigns, based on the accumulated data Facebook tracks.

Clickbait Political Sites
Another article this week, from The New York Times Magazine, delved into what it called Facebook’s “Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan Political-Media Machine.” John Herrman identifies an emerging trend you may have noticed in your Facebook news feed: more political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook.

This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

These are sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook. You have probably never heard of them: they have names like Occupy Democrats, The Angry Patriot, US Chronicle, Addicting Info, RightAlerts, Being Liberal, Opposing Views, Fed-Up Americans, and American News. There are hundreds more and some of these pages have millions of followers. Herrman continues:

Individually, these pages have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created. Their pages are accommodated but not actively courted by the company and are not a major part of its public messaging about media. But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web and has now inherited, for better or for worse, a great deal of America’s political discourse.

Cashing in on Trumpmania
These clickbait political sites are certainly cashing in on the 2016 elections. Hundreds of these sites work to make money on the seemingly endless appetite for news about Donald Trump. Facebook gives them that outlet.

But these sites are often hosted in eastern Europe. The town of Veles, Macedonia (population 44,000), is the unlikely home for dozens of avowedly pro-Trump political news sites, featuring headlines like “Hillary’s Illegal Email Just Killed Its First American Spy” and “This is How Liberals Destroyed America, This Is Why We Need Trump in the White House”. The Guardian identified more than 150 domains registered to people claiming addresses in Veles, though not all of those are associated with active websites.


Back in February, we were concerned about political campaigns using Facebook to harvest massive amounts of data on potential constituents and to target individual users with specific messages. This is certainly happening, but the news this week has shown a different concern for political news on Facebook: the rise of political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook. Their “stories” often contain very little news substance and serve more to stir emotions, get shared, and take advantage of Facebook’s algorithms to make advertising money. This year, they have cashed in our the sensationalism of the Trump campaign. While there is no doubt that Facebook plays a large role in our country’s political discourse, the lasting impact of that role remains to be seen.

Trending at

Election 2016

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconWhy smartphones alone won’t close the digital divide (Sacramento Bee Op-Ed)
coffee iconMobile Network Performance in the US: A Special Report (RootMetrics)
coffee iconGig economy poses tough questions for US (Financial Times)
coffee iconHow Parents Harnessed the Power of Social Media to Challenge EpiPen Prices (New York Times)

Events Calendar for Summer 2016
Aug 31 -- Big Sky Broadband Workshop, NTIA
Sept 1 -- Fostering the Advancement of the Internet of Things, NTIA

By Robbie McBeath.