Opinion

Fake news and Facebook: There are far more pernicious ways social media can sway elections

To the editor: This article barely scratches the surface of a serious and unprecedented problem. (“After Trump's win, even some in Silicon Valley wonder: Has Facebook grown too influential?” Nov. 11)

The Times cites recent Pew Research Center reports suggesting that nearly half of Americans now get their news from Facebook and that 20% of social media users were found to change their views because of social media content. The company also has more powerful tools at its disposal.

What if Facebook chose to send voter registration reminders only to supporters of one candidate? What if, on election day, Facebook chose to send voting reminders only to that candidate’s supporters? In a research report published in 2012, Facebook personnel reported sending out such reminders to 60 million of the company’s users on election day in 2010. This caused 340,000 people to vote who otherwise would have stayed home. 

Facebook’s power is nothing compared with Google’s. Controlled experiments my associates and I have been conducting show that Google has the power to shift as many as 13 million votes using biased search rankings and search suggestions. Such manipulations are both legal and undetectable.

Facebook and Google are powerful tools of surveillance and manipulation. If we ignore this, we do so at our peril.

Robert Epstein, Vista

The writer is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.

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To the editor: Now that newspapers are dying off, and the principled political positions some of the best of them promulgated will probably disappear, we will be left with Twitter, Facebook and similar sites to engage us before elections. 

Since the promotion of principled positions is not a part of what they publish, the population will be left to sort our truth from lies and to do so only in seconds. As much as I try, I can’t bring myself to be optimistic about our future.

Lawrence Berk, Ventura

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