Social Media Advertising is Polluting Our Politics

Mel Martin
9 min readJan 30, 2021

Today, we each live in our version of the Truman show, a late 90s movie that followed Jim Carey as Truman, who had unknowingly been the star of reality show since his birth. He lives in a bubble where everyone around him curates an experience for him. Everyone — friends, family, and even his wife — is an actor working to maintain his delusional view of the world.

The Truman Show (1998)

Today, we live on our own version of this bubble.

The difference is that we have created this bubble for ourselves as a means of connection, entertainment, and survival. Here in the Covid-era, we shelter in this bubble physically — but also socially, emotionally, and even politically.

We have been enticed into this world by social platforms and social media influencers who are polluting our internet by designing systems to maximize their profits to the detriment of our wellbeing — and it has peaked in today’s politics.

Most of us are aware that we are delivered customized versions of reality based on the information we share on our social media profiles — and at present, it is inescapable. This does not sound all that bad at face value. Sharing a laugh while sharing cat photos and videos of the latest dance challenge seems harmless enough, and for many of us, the internet is a source of joy and laughter and connection to loved ones. It is also a source of anger, frustration, and insecurity. If we judged our digital lives based on these observations, it all seems neutral. The bad cancels out the good, and we are still around to play, post, like, and share experiences with our few dozen, hundred, thousand — or perhaps million — “friends” and “followers.”

Meanwhile, our social and emotional lives are more at risk than they seem. For many of us trapped in toxic online groups and endless timelines, we are like frogs coming to boil in slow-heating water; we only notice that we are in danger when everything around us has come to a boil. It came to a boil at the Capitol insurrection earlier this year, but the tension of our digital lives has been heating up well before then.

Getty Images

We condemn the root of the problem but provide the water and soil that give it life.

In 2016, Cambridge Analytica’s consultation with the Trump Campaign garnered massive media attention worldwide. Cambridge Analytica used stolen and unsecured information from over 50 million people on Facebook to identify persuadable voters online, then analyzed that information to determine the best ways to sway those people politically. Demographic profiling. People were shocked and complained about the news on the very social networks that facilitated the scheme. By April 2018, researchers had approximated that about 10% of Facebook users had deleted their account, while others deleted the application from their phones. Since then, monthly active users have only grown, from 1.8 billion in 2016 to about 2.74 billion in the third quarter of 2020. So why doesn’t Facebook fix the problem?

We are more in awe of their impact than methods, and what that means for how we pick our leaders at all levels. Cambridge Analytica built profiles of us to understand better what messaging would motivate us. Then they delivered targeted advertisements using those profiles. The data were illegally acquired, but the approach to gaining influence is not new — and 100% legal. Commercial advertising firms have been using such profiles as these for over a century. TV ads came along in the early 50s in the US but early print had the potential to be manipulative as well. However, traditional advertising mediums offered weaker feedback loops for customization than today’s social media accounts. On these platforms sit a feast of data for the world’s most ingeniously designed algorithms to interpret, all with the goal of influencing our behavior. In the Social Dilemma, the architects of this dopamine factory engage in their mea culpa. We roll our eyes and watch it while checking our social media and accelerating the spread of true and fake news exponentially. The bubble is airtight.

Image courtesy of: Joey Klarenbeek

In the Voting Booth: Reptilian brain 1: Pre-frontal cortex: 0.

However, the question we must ask is what this does to our democratic and political processes? Is the difference between presidential candidates just a matter of pressing the right buttons of people online? And, if so, how do we espouse that we are a democracy when our major political parties are dependent on emotional manipulation to win elections? The manipulation of emotions and behavior via illusion and psychology has been around since the beginning of organized power. Machiavelli gained his reputation by suggesting we deal with politics as they are, not how we ideally wish them to be. But in Machiavelli’s time, if we wanted to launch an insidious plot to gain power, we needed to come in contact with a lot of people because (mis)information then spread more slowly and was less personalized. Today, we only need to create an account on the latest social platform and begin spouting our manifesto. With a dedicated team, and after spending a few thousand on ads, we would be well on our way to conjuring the next QAnon conspiracy.

Reach and speed are not the only elements that have been radically amplified. So has the quality of speech itself. Storytelling, emotional marketing, and combative language have become a mainstay in our politics today. For so long, this emotional game was a weak force that came in the form of an obvious rouse like a hard sell at a car dealership. At some point, organizations have gotten savvier about their brand positioning and how best to buy real estate in our mind’s eye, conjuring feelings of safety, happiness, anger, love, jealously, or even insecurity when necessary. For some brands, emotion and desire have become synonymous with their brand name. Think Coca-Cola, Disney, and Louis Vuitton. We favor these brands because of their emotional and aspirational tug. And neuromarketing makes advertising more targeted and sophisticated than ever before. Predictive analytics will fill in the space that exists when humans cannot determine the next thing we might want. Former Google CEO even called the experience of Tik Tok “The most entertaining 15 seconds of your life — over and over again.” This technology is so valuable to tech companies today that when President Trump ordered Tik Tok to sell its US business, China immediately banned the exchange of its algorithms.

We must ask ourselves, is emotion the best motivator? Techniques have certainly changed, but tactics have not. This activity in the absence of competent and empowered regulators puts us in this precarious position. The broadcasters have more access to various levels — individuals, groups, etc — in more formats.

Social movements join in these games as well. For example, in the summer of 2020, in the name of BLM, people were inundated with shocking videos and images that some political consultant determined would best motivate people to join their cause. These messages are eye-opening at best. At worst, they are desensitizing. Their noble intent to shock our world into change also comes with casualties; Black people petrified by the sight of a police officer — whether or not that particular officer intends to do them harm. People puzzled and dismayed when they see a “we support our police” sign in their neighborhood or a “Black Lives Matter” poster outside of a country club.

It is not just the killing of Black people that affects the mental health of the community-at-large, it is also being inundated with images, examples, and videos of those very acts. While expedient, this tactic of bombarding social media with Black death may not necessarily empower Black people, who — once again — become a casualty in a scheme to move White people to take action. And this is only one example of how social movements mobilize, which usually entails proliferating the narratives of the oppressed as a way to elevate their voices. This is not a rebuke of leftist politics. Most effective social movements today use emotional prodding to get what they want, but our charge must be to responsible with our organizing, and to empower people.

Surely enough, the same digital tools, social media, and ad-targeting that provided inertia for BLM were leveraged to support its opposition. To the casual observer, a single tweet from the President caused a mob of people to storm the capitol spontaneously. In reality, a toxic combination of fake news, racism, and conspiracy theories proliferated on social media accounts several months in advance, encouraging people to storm the capitol to save democracy.

Jon Cherry / Getty Images

Today, our social lives are roller coasters of emotions that we seem to barely register — we seem to easily toggle between Tik Tok dances and earthquake victims — and create the ideal scenario for advertisers and electoral campaigns to nudge us along according to their plans. To ask whether this is good or bad is not the right question. Instead, it is better to question whether our social platforms, both digital and physical, even allow us to choose for ourselves. Those who can afford it can opt out of some advertising through paid subscriptions. However, if you enjoy sports, television, movies, or perhaps an afternoon walk in your neighborhood, you will be greeted with messages telling you what to think, how to feel, and what you should be doing about it. And this is not a scheme solely employed by any one political party or organization. Our digital lives are a fertile landscape for extracting value — and political actors are waking up to its influence.

Gone are the days when social media influencers only made young women wallow at their inability to mimic face-tuned selfies, and young men feel inadequate because they do not present the same level of masculinity as influencers who secretly take steroids and rent luxury cars. Today, these youth are the target of recruitment strategies for political action. If you know a young person who seems conspicuously insistent on a particular solution to social problems or recites political talking points more fluently than a communications specialist, then you have probably witnessed these effects firsthand. The access digital advertisers abuse makes it nearly impossible to avoid these signals once a person has been targeted. After all, this often occurs along political ideologies we already espouse.

Mia Barnier

Change social media; Change the world

In the early 2010s, the uprising of people in the Arab world went viral. Having been in part facilitated by social media, this phenomenon ignited a new spirit of activism and a new political spirit for young people across the globe. It was clear to us then that social media would play an ever more significant role in the politics of world.

Around the same time, Facebook was refining and scaling its advertising business, which stumbled at getting the full attention of Madison Avenue, despite making $3.8 billion in ad revenue in 2011. One reporter wrote, “To put it another way, Facebook still needs to marry its social ad science with the ad industry’s creative dark arts.” And so it did; and here we are.

We all know something is wrong. We have been in the boiler pot since before 2010. We also acknowledge how powerful these social media companies are, but we need to realize that we are, too. So let’s make it a practice to ask ourselves:

  • Can we find ways to connect online genuinely?
  • How do we ensure we expand outward from our bubbles without exposing ourselves to the manipulation of today’s media landscape?
  • What does regulation look? And who can we trust to champion this in the highest offices in the political, private and public sectors?
  • In the meantime, how do we protect the most vulnerable (children, the elderly, those prone to addiction, the depressed, and the distressed) from addictive material?
  • What does a political and social world free of coercion look actually like?
  • What needs of ours are advertisers, political organizers, and fake news peddlers capitalizing on? And how can we best fill those needs with intention while honoring our values?

Today, companies seem to have more power than ever before, but we must remember that they draw said power from us. As such, we have the power to design our world to better suit our needs as a society.

Authors: Mel Martin and Carin-Isabel Knoop



Mel Martin

Mel is an Associate Case Researcher at the Harvard Business School interested in business, politics, social media, and the tech that drives our world today.