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How targeted advertising on social media drives people to extremes

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Have you had a experience looking at a product online and then seeing ads for it across your social media feed? Far from coincidence, these cases of incredibly accurate advertising provide a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes mechanics that feed an article you search for on Google, “like” on social media, or browse custom social media ads bump.

These mechanisms are increasingly being used for more nefarious purposes than aggressive advertising. The threat lies in how this targeted advertising interacts with today’s extremely divided political landscape. As a social media researcher, I see how people who want to radicalize others use targeted advertising to get people to take extreme views.

Promotion to an audience of one

Advertising is clearly powerful. The right advertising campaign can help shape or create demand for a new product or rehabilitate the image of an older product or even an entire company or brand. Political campaigns use similar strategies to advance candidates and ideas, and in the past countries have used them to wage propaganda wars.

Mass media advertising is powerful, but mass media has a built-in moderating power. If they are trying to move a lot of people in one direction, the mass media can only move them as fast as the center allows. Moving too far or too fast can alienate the people in the middle.

The detailed profiles that social media companies create for each of their users make advertising even more impactful by allowing advertisers to tailor their messages to individuals. These profiles often include the size and value of your home, the year you bought your car, whether you are expecting a child, and whether you will buy lots of beer.

As a result, social media has a greater ability to make ideas available to people as quickly as they individually accept them. The same mechanisms that can recommend a niche consumer product or suggest an addictive substance right when someone is most vulnerable can also suggest an extreme conspiracy theory just when a person is willing to think about it.

It is increasingly common for friends and family to find themselves on opposite sides in highly polarized debates on important issues. Many people recognize social media as part of the problem, but how do these powerful bespoke advertising techniques contribute to the divisive political landscape?

Breadcrumbs to the extreme

An important part of the answer is that people who associate with foreign governments without admitting themselves take extreme positions on social media posts with the deliberate aim of sparking divisions and conflict. These extreme posts take advantage of the social media algorithms that are designed to increase engagement, meaning they reward content that generates a response.

Another important part of the answer is that people who want to radicalize others are laying paths from breadcrumbs to increasingly extreme positions.

Many people feel that they have “invented” conspiracy theories for themselves, but in many cases they have been deliberately led to it.
AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes

These social media radicalization pipelines work similarly whether they’re recruiting jihadists or January 6 insurgents.

You may feel like you are “doing your own research” switching from source to source, but you are really following a deliberate pipeline of radicalization that is meant to lead you to increasingly extreme content at whatever pace you choose to tolerate. For example, after analyzing over 72 million user comments on over 330,000 videos posted on 349 YouTube channels, researchers found that users consistently switched from milder to more extreme content.

The outcome of these radicalization pipelines is evident. Instead of most people having moderate views and fewer people having extreme views, fewer and fewer people are in the middle.

How to protect yourself

What can you do? First of all, I recommend being skeptical about social media recommendations. Most people would get on social media in search of something in particular and then would look up from their phones for an hour or more without knowing how or why they were reading or seeing what they were just doing. It’s supposed to be addicting.

I have tried to find a more conscious way to get the information I want and actively avoid simply clicking on anything that is recommended to me. As I read or look at the suggestions I ask myself, “How could this information be in someone else’s best interests, not mine?”

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Second, you should support efforts to require social media platforms to offer users a choice of recommendations and feed curation algorithms, including those based on easy-to-explain rules.

Third, and most importantly, I recommend spending more time interacting with friends and family outside of social media. Whenever I find that I need to forward a link to make a point, I consider this a warning bell that I don’t understand the subject well enough myself. If so, maybe I followed a constructed path to extreme content instead of consuming materials that actually help me understand the world better.

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