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Who is the real Donald Trump?
America’s defender surrounded by a perfect family, the LGBT community’s favourite candidate, a millionaire who sacrificed his fortune to save the United States. A pathological liar. A tax cheat. A person who can’t remember his own son’s name.
He crushed Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the election debate. He lost the debate to Biden. His popularity is down. His popularity is up. Everyone supports him. Everyone hates him.
In the realm of social media these statements all reflect someone’s version of reality. Filter bubbles ensure users stay in their own information universe.
This is the power and danger of social media. And that’s why social media has become such a powerful election campaign tool.
This autumn the frontrunners in America’s presidential race have channelled more than 100 million dollars into marketing campaigns on Facebook and Instagram.
Individual Instagram users in the US only see a tiny fraction of this vast effort aiming to influence their voting behaviour. Political campaigns may target users based on where they live and on their past social media behaviour.
But Instagram bubbles aren’t just for Americans. The phenomenon is global and also reaches into Finland.
It’s impossible for us to get the full picture of how regular people are being influenced on social media. That’s why we had to become those ordinary individuals.
In August an Yle working group created five fictional Instagram profiles. The accounts were localised to different areas of the United States.
For this story we analysed more than 2,000 posts that Instagram recommended to our five fictional users and filtered for posts with a political message.
Our research showed it’s easy for Instagram users to end up in divisive political bubbles. The platform’s polarising bubble-forming tendencies don’t stop unless users themselves realise the algorithm is serving up one-sided content.
Experts told The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle that Instagram does not help users recognise filter bubbles.
The majority of all politically charged posts dealt with Donald Trump. His picture was the most popular image shared not only by Republicans but also by Democratic supporters on Instagram.
- Why? Suburban and small-town women may play the most crucial role in this presidential election. In the battleground state of Wisconsin the voter turnout of under-29s is exceptionally high, with young adults casting votes more evenly for both parties than in other parts of the country. This is why parties want to influence this demographic group on social media.
- Family: married, two young children
- Profession: stay-at-home mom
- Personal interests: issues affecting families with children, schools, fashion and beauty, church goer, opposes abortion
- Follows on Instagram: media personality Cathy Areu, social influencers Karlie Kloss, Ivanka Trump, local newspapers, wellness and beauty bloggers, an anti-abortion page, local cafés, local churches, University of Wisconsin
See what posts made it into Lily’s Instagram feed. You can try one or more categories.
Yle’s aim was to cast a light on the social media bubbles Americans find themselvesin this electoral season.
Each of Yle’s five fictional American characters 'lives' in a swing state. They all represent voter groups experts believe will play the biggest role in the election result. That’s why these fake personas are such enticing targets for election campaigns.
What kind of politically charged images will a young mother living in Wisconsin come across? What will a Black man in his thirties living in a small Michigan town see when he scrolls?
Whose posts will a young Latino man in Arizona glimpse in his feed as he commutes between jobs? Will a businesswoman from Texas promoting women’s rights see the same things as a 50-year-old coal worker in Pennsylvania?
Yle’s working group ensured the fictional Instagram characters’ behaviour on the platform mimicked that of real users. The characters were given home counties, which were also included in their bios.
All of the accounts were managed according to the same strategy: five likes around six days per week. Whenever possible, Yle’s characters liked something local, such as a restaurant. At least one like always pertained to politics. Yle’s characters were active on Instagram in line with local time zones--that is to say--not during Finnish working hours.
Instagram has over a billion users worldwide.
While Yle’s five fictional users can’t provide a complete understanding of the American political content circulating on Instagram, our study provides a glimpse into the vastly different digital realities in which Americans are weighing their vote.
Yle’s fictional profiles imitated regular Americans as closely as possible.
But knowing what sort of posts a person will like or what type of social media content they would follow is still mainly guesswork. It’s also difficult for an outsider to grasp cultural references, and one fictional persona can’t really represent an entire demographic group either. In that sense the Instagram users in this study are highly generalised versions of people, perhaps even caricatures.
Journalists and researchers are increasingly using fake profiles to learn more about what happens on Facebook and Instagram. Social media giants do not divulge their inner workings in detail, which is why journalists are looking for new ways to crack open the door to this secretive world.
Yle drew on open sources on social media, published research and reports to create its five fake profiles.
While these five Instagrammers were not real people, their accounts received the same content as legitimate users on the image-sharing platform.
- Why? The Latino vote is crucial for winning in swing states such as Florida and Arizona. In the 2016 presidential race, Yuma County in Arizona saw the closest battle. Latino men are more divided on their voting preference than women.
- Family: parents
- Profession: works two jobs to save money for college
- Personal interests: cars, rap, video games, migrant issues, employment
- Follows on Instagram: RogueDNC meme account, game account GeorgioWeb, NBC News Latino, comedian Joe Santagato and musician MC Davo
See what posts made it into Jorge’s Instagram feed. You can try one or more categories.
"Instagram doesn’t differentiate between tea and politics"
- The platform clearly recommended conservative content more often than liberal topics.
- Neutral content was only recommended a handful of times
- Instagram is not equipped to understand political messages as its algorithm is designed to sell products, according to researchers.
In 2016 team Trump’s skillful use of Facebook helped send him to the White House. His campaign spent 80 percent of its digital marketing budget on Facebook advertising alone.
His campaign created thousands of versions of the same message, tailoring it to appeal to different types of people.
The final months of that presidential race saw fake election news stories draw massive engagement on Facebook. One of the biggest false hits was a story suggesting Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS (siirryt toiseen palveluun) and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed (siirryt toiseen palveluun) Trump. Studies later showed that these fake stories drew the most engagement on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Studies have also revealed that at the time Russian government-linked troll farms helped spread fake stories on social media.
Instagram’s impact on the 2016 presidential race remains unknown. That’s because Facebook, which owns Instagram, has not disclosed how many followers Russian trolls gained on Instagram.
Researchers have claimed Russian trolls who attempted to influence the 2016 US election had more success reaching American users on Instagram than many realised. At that time, posts on Instagram drew more engagement than those on Facebook.
It’s clear Instagram will play a greater role in this election than it did in the previous one, according to an expert familiar with the social media business.
- When it comes to legitimate political advocacy or disinformation, the borders between social media platforms are eroding. In this environment, Instagram has become more important in politics, at least in the US. Instagram has also become a vehicle for disinformation, Paul Barrett, Deputy Director at New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights, told Yle via email.
In 2019, Barrett published a report assessing how disinformation campaigns on social media would influence the 2020 presidential race.
Instagram continues to attract users as the platform gains popularity, particularly in the United States. Users also perceive Instagram as a soft and friendly space worlds away from politics.
That said, monitoring an image-sharing site has proven more difficult than observing content on Twitter or Facebook.
Our five 'Americans' on Instagram would check out posts recommended by Instagram every time they logged in. Yle’s working group recorded recommendations served up by the platform.
Recommendations play a big role on Instagram as content is not shared in the same way as on Facebook. The recommendation function is Instagram’s engagement tool, guiding users to new accounts.
Yle’s study clearly showed that political campaigns are reaching out to Instagram accounts.
Of some 2,000 recommendations, 788--or 40 percent--were related to US presidential election themes.
Yle’s fictional Americans portrayed very different types of people. The most political character, coal worker Tom, received more politically minded content than anyone else, and was mainly hit with conservative posts. Tom was followed by Lily, portrayed as a relatively socially active individual. Elizabeth attracted the third most political content in her feed.
Jorge and Jim--both young minority males--experienced the fewest political influencing attempts.
Yle’s analysis showed that some 70 percent of political content was pro conservative while 20 percent supported liberal causes. This ratio coincidentally roughly reflects the proportion of Trump and Biden Instagram followers.
Trump has a dizzying 22.7 million Instagram followers while Biden’s fans on the platform total 5.1 million.
The remaining posts seen by our characters were neutral or difficult to decipher. Fifteen posts suggested that American politics were so broken that voting wouldn’t make a difference. Posts that were difficult to interpret are displayed in the image gallery as 'other'.
Yle’s 'Americans' all saw emotionally compelling content aiming to pull them left or right.
Jorge, who is struggling to get a foothold in the job market, saw recommendations calling for communism to spread in the US. Tom received memes portraying Trump beating up the coronavirus. The algorithm sent Elizabeth videos of screaming women with the text 'LIBERAL WOMEN ARE NOT OKEY'.
Instagram does not provide enough information about its algorithm for us to be able to understand why conservative content and extreme views rise to the top of recommendations.
Emily Bell, who heads Columbia University’s Center for Digital Journalism, says it’s likely Instagram won’t disclose its secret sauce because its algorithm is simply built for selling products.
– They haven't built the recommendation algorithm to turn the world into Nazis. But Instagram doesn’t distinguish between whether we’re looking at pictures of tea or a political party, says Bell, who has studied disinformation campaigns on social media.
This means that when a political meme of questionable taste starts attracting comments, the algorithm will likely raise its profile and show it to more users.
The algorithm’s logic leads it to conclude: this must be a type of tea that a lot of people want.
- Why? In 2016 Trump won in Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes or 0.7 percent, bringing Republicans their first presidential win in the state in 30 years. Less educated white males form the core of Trump supporters, and it’s important for Trump to reach voters in this demographic again.
- Family: married with grown children
- Profession: coal worker
- Follows on Instagram: The National Park Service, QAnon social media conspiracy theorists, Fox News, Erie’s sports bar, conservative group Pennsylvania Patriots, The Philadelphia Eagles football team
See what posts made it into Tom’s Instagram feed. You can try one or more categories.
Desserts and divisive content
- At the end of the experiment all of Yle’s accounts had either tilted towards the Republicans or Democrats. There wasn’t any middleground.
- It was only a matter of days before our accounts landed on the left or right, receiving posts from one camp or the other
- Polarising content gains visibility easily on Instagram, which is why this type of messaging pays off, according to one researcher.
We had planned for Yle’s American characters to follow every political account Instagram recommended. We, however, o abandoned this idea at the early stages of the experiment, as some of the accounts were immediately flooded with one-sided political content.
Republicans took over 26-year-old Lily in a week. Her feed filled with posts admiring Trump family women, anti-abortion images and messages berating Democrats.
We realised it was unlikely for a young woman in Wisconsin to only be staring at politics in her free time. To emulate a more realistic experience, we decided that Yle’s American accounts would only follow political accounts that real-life users with similar profiles followed.
Yle’s Instagram account managers unfollowed accounts their characters weren't likely to follow in real-life either.
But despite this attempt for more balanced recommendations, each fake American account tilted to one side or the other.
In October, Democrats gained a bigger presence on the platform while the share of neutral content rose slightly in proportion to conservative posts.
The Trump and Biden campaign teams are more than aware that polarising content ranks highly on Instagram, Bell says.
One reason is that a divisive post is so different from a traditional ad. It looks like a message from a real user, evokes emotion and therefore draws a lot of reactions from users.
This way it gets more visibility too.
And this is exactly the type of content Yle’s characters saw.
- Why? Texas, a traditionally conservative state is moving in a more liberal direction. Tarrant, a large county home to some two million residents, is seen as an indicator signaling which way the state will vote. Women voters play a big role in determining whether the state goes to the Republicans or Democrats.
- Family: divorced, children attend top university Stanford
- Profession: successful entrepreneur
- Personal interests: horses, interior design, women’s rights, stock market
- Follows on Instagram: Michelle Obama, Ivanka Trump, politician Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Tribune newspaper, Forbes magazine, Texas horses for sale, Amberleaf clothing
Large, bold fonts signal conservatives, "millennial pink" is for liberals
- Political campaigns have adapted to changes in marketing
- Parties present political affiliation as a lifestyle choice. Long campaign declarations are outdated. Supporting a political party is a part of the ‘good life’.
- Donald Trump’s supporters have mastered this type of messaging.
- Posts from Democratic supporters tend to be more traditional and text-based. They use fewer memes and share more news.
Images depicting American political life extend beyond stars and stripes, party symbols or Trump’s MAGA cap.
We see sunbathers in Trump-branded bikinis, glasses cheering on the beach and admiration for stylish women.
In addition to Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are two other successful visual social media platforms. Savvy political campaign teams know how to manipulate our image associations. A picture of a bald eagle becomes America in our mind.
- It's easy to overthink visual communication but basically this is digital marketing. These messages are following exactly the same rules as slipper manufacturers. They no longer present products in a text-heavy way. They present them in a lifestyle, shareable, visual way, and with politics it is exactly the same, Emily Bell says.
An entirely new esthetic culture is forming and the toughest political players are in on the game.
- It’s starting to become ingrained in us that large, bold letters are a part of the MAGA movement, whereas Democrats use a finer font, favouring what we call Millennial pink, explained Columbia University researcher Danielle Lee Tomson, who studies social media influencers’ role in the spread of populism.
Democrats’ and Republicans’ messages differ greatly, Yle’s material shows. Memes and strong visuals dominate Republicans’ messaging while Democrats feature more text and Twitter shares.
Lee Tomson says this is because Republicans have heavily invested in building and financing networks of influencers in alternative media.
Right-wing and alternative media outlets in the US have decades more experience than their liberal counterparts. That said, alternative media outlets have provided conservatives with an enormous social media boost.
The two sides also appear to have different aims on the platform.
Trump’s campaign doesn’t explainthe workings of policy or what specifically should be done to improve things. or what Pro-Trump accounts across Instagram use pictures to convey what being a real American is and what that lifestyle looks like. This imagery seeks to build a sense of group cohesion among supporters.
– Progessives try to educate people on what’s happening, how things should be, and why to join them. This requires a lot of text, which is why their imagery looks so different, Lee Tomson explains.
- Why: Macomb is a swing county in the battleground state of Michigan. It’s in the southeast of the state, an area where Hillary Clinton failed to secure enough Black votes in 2016. Many people didn’tturn up at the polls which helped Trump win. This time around Michigan is also a crucial state for the candidates as it has been a centre for the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Family: lives alone, dates
- Profession: Works in the arts
- Personal interests: working out, hiphop, friends, zero interest in politics
- Follows on Instagram: Black millennial community Blavity, comedian Joe Rogan, musician Kota the Friend, Black Lives Matter and a host of local Michigan-based accounts.
Trump’s campaign is full of beautiful women
- Many young and successful women campaign for Trump on Instagram
- Biden’s campaign features few women.
In addition to speaking different visual languages, posts by Democratic and Republican supporters also differ in another major way: the number of women.
Women are at the centre of Trump’s Instagram campaign, while they rarely appear in Biden’s, Yle’s study showed.
Donald Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, and daughter Ivanka Trump are pivotal to his Instagram campaign efforts. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also features prominently. In the posts recorded by Yle, McEnany appeared more frequently than Melania Trump. All of these women have numerous dedicated fan accounts on Instagram.
Finding so many women in Trump’s Instagram efforts is surprising as both Republican candidates are men, with Mike Pence seeking another term as Vice President. Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s running mate, but she is only visible in a handful of the posts recorded by Yle.
But it’s not just our millennial character Lily or Texan Elizabeth who see images of Trump’s female supporters, 50-year-old coal worker Tom also gets a fair share of the Trump ladies.
Republican women play a far smaller role in Jorge's and Jim’s accounts.
– Trump has definitely deployed the women in his inner circle to draw attention to his campaign online, Barrett suggests.
Columbia University researcher Tomson says the parties--particularly Republicans--have understood the significant role women will play in this election. The Republicans also knew they might be hit with the 'woman card' in this election.
–This is why they've cultivated their own brand of what the feminine conservative activist looks like and shared it accordingly, Tomson says.
Many accounts supporting Trump have hundreds of thousands of followers
- Trump has a large number of support accounts tailored for different groups, including Latinos, Black voters, families and women.
- Support accounts for Biden only have a fraction of the followers compared to those promoting Trump.
- Yle’s fictional American users received a particularly high number of recommendations from accounts linked to Trump’s family members.
The tone of our fictional users’ accounts shifted at the end of September, specifically the day before and after the first presidential debate, when the number of political messages quickly increased.
During this period the characters who generally saw very little political content were flooded with it.
In total, Instagram’s algorithm recommended 311 accounts sharing political content to our fictional Americans. Two-thirds of these accounts were conservative. Neutral accounts, such as those sharing news stories, made up the smallest proportion of these accounts.
We observed that conservative Instagram accounts carefully targeted users according to their demographic. Our five characters received content from accounts including: Latinos for Trump, Black Voices for Trump, and Families for Trump. On the Democratic side there was only one hit from Women for Biden.
Searching Instagram turns up similar Biden support accounts which have a fraction of the following associated with Trump’s support accounts. This is remarkable because the number of followers doesn’t correspond with recent voter surveys.
Black Voices for Trump on Instagram has 300,000 followers while Biden’s corresponding Black Americans for Joe account has just 1,400 followers. Fresh voter surveys, however, suggest that more than 70 percent of Black Americants will vote for Biden.
Professor Emily Bell says targeting many different groups on Instagram has been a part of the Trump campaign’s marketing strategy. The Trump team has analysed its voter base to find new target groups for whom to further tailor messaging.
These are all typical digital marketing tools, according to Bell. But it’s something conservatives excel at.
– Democrats are hopeless in this type of campaigning, she says.
Buying followers on Instagram is relatively easy. Is it possible that click farms are behind some of Trump popularity on the platform?
– I can't say whether these followers are real, but it's a good question. It's worth being skeptical about all activity online, says Paul Barrett.
Trump is in every picture
- Donald Trump appeared more often than any other political figure in the material collected by Yle.
- Trump’s picture was also the most common photo in Instagram posts supporting liberals.
If election campaigning on Instagram were to be summarised into two words it would be Donald Trump.
Each fictional Instagram user created by Yle saw Trump’s picture more than any other image.
Every time one of our fictional characters tapped their recommendations they always saw at least one Trump photo. The second most common photo was Trump together with his wife, Melania.
– Trump has transformed the presidency into a cult of personality. His image is central to promoting this approach, so his campaign disseminates the Trump photos at every opportunity, Barrett says.
Emily Bell agrees.
– Donald Trump understands the media and ratings far better than any previous president In the history of the United States. Because that's what he did [media work] already 18 years ago, Bell explains.
Cults also come to mind when considering how prominently Trump’s family features on Instagram, which is practically home to a Trump dynasty.
Instagram recommended our fictional Americans follow a total of 33 accounts or fan accounts related to Trump’s family members. That’s ten percent of the total number of political accounts the platform recommended to our characters.
An American study published this summer suggested that earlier on in the presidential race Democrats used images to battle Trump more than they did to support Biden. This is why Trump’s face often features in Democratic election ads.
Paradoxically this meant that the more Democratic content our characters saw on Instagram, the more frequently they also came across Trump’s photo.
This presents a bizarre situation from a Finnish perspective. How would it have seemed if Pekka Haavisto (Green) had conducted his presidential election campaign using pictures of incumbent Sauli Niinistö?
Social media is like an onion, but peeling it won’t bring you any closer to the core. It’s difficult to uncover who’s actually behind an Instagram account.
Four years ago Russia interfered in the US presidential election. Is Russia at it again or will China or Iran manipulate social media this time around to try to exert influence?
Professor Emily Bell says social media platforms appear to have been successful in blocking foreign actors from exerting influence on their sites, but this may not really matter after all.
- In domestic politics in the US you have campaigns that use exactly the same tactics: confusion, misinformation, cheap fakes, deep fakes, pretending to be news outlets, Bell explains.
Instagram’s representatives declined to directly answer our questions, choosing instead to comment on general issues.
- We do a lot of work to make sure that the content people see is relevant to them, Instagram’s London-based communications manager, Joshua Breckman, told Yle via email.
He wanted to emphasise that the company pays attention to disinformation attempts.
- Content that has been labelled as misinformation by third party fact-checkers will be downranked in Feed and Stories and it will not appear in places like Explore and hashtag pages. We are also attaching an informational label to content that discusses issues of legitimacy of the election or claims that lawful methods of voting like mail-in ballots will lead to fraud.
Bell points out that polarising imagery is not as dangerous as the dissemination of lies and propaganda made to look and feel like real news.
It’s precisely this type of content our fictional American Instagram users were exposed to in posts from, for example, Judicial Watch, a conservative group previously found to have spread false information on voting.
But maybe the greatest social media threat facing us isn’t actually related to deepfake videos or disinformation attempts.
- I think the real problem is that you get kind of detached from society. People just don’t know what to believe anymore. They get apathetic--there's no point engaging in anything because it's all made up, Bell says.
The original article in Finnish was published on 25 October 2020.