Digital Electioneering and Online Polls

Digital Electioneering and Online Polls

Online polling is another example of the new multi-layer alignments proliferating in social media spaces.

By RA Monaco

“Fake polls drive so much of the agenda, including the myth [Donald] Trump is leading in all the polls,” said DePaul University Professor Bruce Evensen.  The Journalism Program Director and Chair explained, “online polling, which Ipsos and others have begun using” is now part of the agenda setting process.

“They’re based on robo-calls or other mechanisms where your supporters can create the impression you’re leading, thereby producing a bandwagon effect on the unsuspecting,” said Evensen following a new Ipso/Reuters poll announcement that Donald Trump had “re-solidified his leadership in the Republican race” with Ben Carson sliding back into second.  The survey conducted on behalf of Thomson Reuters, was randomly drawn from Ipso’s online panel.

“The polls are being used to guide the daily news cycle” explained Professor Evensen, who spent thirteen years in broadcast and print journalism as a reporter, producer and bureau chief in Washington and the Middle East.  The former bureau chief says they help “certain candidates, particularly Donald Trump, make the claim he’s ahead in all the polls.” Actually, Evensen thinks “many of the polls he is citing are junk.”

Leveraging the so-called margin of error—a statistical concept meant to indicate the quality of sampling and the accuracy expected from the survey results—has been an exploitable area.   Last year, The Economic Times which ran a story about a New Dehli sting operation that revealed massive manipulations where pollsters, using margin of error, agreed to produce favorable polling numbers for a price.

Founded in France, Ipsos ranks third in the global research industry with offices in 87 countries.  It isn’t known whether Ipsos or any of its subsidiaries had involvement in statistical manipulations which prompted the sting operation.  However, what is being questioned is the actual news value to the public?

Online polling is another example of the new multi layer alignments proliferating in social media spaces. These days political influence has become comparatively cheap.  The affordability of social media is helping to elevate it as the dominant mode of political influence.  Optimists, politicians and tech evangelists argue that “digital democracy” facilitates grassroot organization with the direct input of a Tweeting electorate.

On the other hand, as far back as 2010, Associate Professor of Informatics and Computer Science at Indiana University Filippo Menezer, anticipated the manipulation of the Twittersphere for political gains.  “If you think about how much putting an ad on TV costs, you could pay an army of people to post fake information and promote it through social networks,” Menezer explained.

With corporate resources flowing into campaigns, electoral watchdogs don’t seem to have caught up to what‘s happening with social media.  “People are being manipulated without realizing it” Menezer told The Atlantic, “because a meme can be given instant global popularity by a high search ranking, in turn perpetuating a falsehood.”  The consensus about the social media sphere, which remains relatively untouched by campaign finance and transparency laws, and the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), is that accountability is a huge problem.

The way campaign finance law deals with Facebook is, I’m free to say whatever I want and the necessary conditions for disclosure fall into a category best described as legal ambiguity.  Does a blogger on someone’s campaign payroll still wear the hat of a private citizen when he’s sharing the most recent polling numbers?

Campaign finance laws regulate the spending of money to influence elections.  Coordinating social media strategist seems to be within the FEC rubric of requiring disclosure of whose being paid and what they’re being paid for, but surreptitious social media operation accountability may not have caught up to digital reality when it comes to hiring and paying influencers in the social space.

FEC regulations establish a three-prong test to determine whether a communication is coordinated.  In general, a payment for a communication is “coordinated” if it is made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee or their agents, or a political party or its agents.

Compounding concerns about the integrity of the news cycle, is that we live at a time when power is global and nation-based politics is being driven by an unimpeded flow of capital in the hands of concentrated power.  The financial elite now float beyond our national borders with the resources to manipulate and crush any candidate or institution not subordinated to the dictates of finance capitalism.

In short, policing digital electioneering has defaulted to search engines and platform moderators.  Americans have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the manipulation of social media and an evolving host of multi-network alignments.



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