Facebook, Trump and Publics: Are publics using or being used?

On April 15, 2016 Gizmodo published an article on a screenshot that they had been given by a Facebook employee (Nunez, 2016a). The image was of the weekly internal poll that lists questions that employees want to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a question and answer session. The fifth most popular question read, “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?”, implying that Facebook has the capacity to influence voting behaviour, and potentially rig the election against the Republican frontrunner. Facebook subsequently released a statement saying that while “supporting civic participation is an important contribution we can make as a community… we have not, and will not influence how people vote” (Nunez, 2016b).

Source: gizmodo.com
Source: gizmodo.com

By “supporting civic participation” Facebook is referring to its actions in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 U.S. elections. In 2010 Facebook encouraged voter turnout in the American congressional elections by allowing random users to have access to an “I voted” button that was then published on the feeds of their friends (Bond et al., 2012). Facebook staff and other scientists, without the knowledge of the participants, analysed the effects of the button as part of a behavioural study, the findings of which were subsequently published in the international scientific journal, Nature. They concluded that Facebook contributed both directly and indirectly to a turnout increase of 340,000 votes (Bond et al., 2012). The button was again made available to users in 2012, and in 2014. Though increasing voter turnout is not a partisan act, and Michael Buckley, the Vice President of Global Business and Communications, was quick to emphasise that “we’ve (Facebook) have always implemented these tests in a neutral manner” (Sifry, 2014), there are problematic implications for such behaviour.

First, Facebook’s user base in the United States is more prominent with women, young people and urban residents (Pew Research Centre, 2013). These demographic realities mean that any ‘get out the vote’ effort on Facebook’s behalf will inherently be skewed towards Democratic voters (Sifry, 2014). The large impact of such features has significant implications for the continued perception of Facebook’s actions to increase public participation as non-partisan. It is clear then that any action on Facebook’s part, partisan or not, will influence votes in elections.

The second complication, and one that applies to the poll published last week, is that as a business, Facebook has no legal obligation to be impartial in its display of political material (Sifry, 2014). What’s more is that unlike say, a traditional media outlet, Facebook as a social media platform has an added element of hosting the public profile of ‘Donald Trump for President’, and acting as facilitator for the candidate’s messaging. If Facebook were to show a political bias, like some traditional media outlets (ie. Fox News, The Sydney Morning Herald), the ability of candidates to communicate with their audiences would be severely hamstrung. The follow on effects could significantly influence the outcomes of a Presidential election in the U.S. The difference between how SNSs and traditional media operate highlights the emerging issues regarding the integration of social networking sites (SNSs) with real world activities. Facebook’s involvement in elections at all is raising questions of whether online social media platforms are being used by publics, or are using them?

Source: bestonlinetricks.com
Source: bestonlinetricks.com

In December 2015 Facebook registered 1.04 billion daily active users (Facebook, 2016). The massive amount of global participation with Facebook has meant that it has increasingly become incorporated in our daily lives. It is nearly impossible to socialise, work, or follow current affairs without having access to a social media network. These sites in turn are of great utility to their users. They allow huge amounts of information to become accessible to the population, while concurrently enabling users to produce and share their content with a global audience (becoming ‘ProdUsers’).

However, when we interact with these sites we are creating online records of our preferences and behaviour. The age of ‘Web 2.0’ has seen the way that individuals and publics communicate fundamentally change, with online ‘audiences’ gaining new prevalence (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 16). Interaction facilitated by SNSs has allowed for masses of data to be quantified and centralised around the behaviour and preferences of individuals. This data is commercially useful to SNSs in two ways. The first being that they receive money from companies to accurately pair advertisers with interested consumers. Advertising is Facebook’s biggest revenue, accounting for 88% of its takings in the first nine months of 2013 (Nielson, 2014). The second is aggregating the data and then selling it on to other interested businesses (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 27). It is clear then that Facebook does not function as a benign public utility.

This seems to be at odds with the user-centric perception of social media. Hinton and Hjorth point out that the user is continuously emphasised as the ‘centre’ of their own networks, which they can personalise, “all the while developing the illusion of freedom through control” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 27). This quasi-social contract is reminiscent to the one outlined by Thomas Hobbes in his treatise The Leviathan. Hobbes worked from the assumption that human life in its natural state is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes, 2015, p. 108). It was only through the ceding of some personal freedoms to a strong central authority (The Leviathan), that civilization could prosper. While Facebook doesn’t seek to save humanity from an anarchic state of nature, the question of a moral imperative to hamper Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations is indicative of the unique position that Facebook occupies in the online space. Why would 21st century social media platforms like Facebook have a moral imperative to work against the ‘tyranny of the majority’?

Source: journyx.com
Source: journyx.com

The answer might in fact lie in responsibility. Facebook is now one of the key tools that campaigns using to promote their messages with spending steadily climbing (Danny & Yadron, 2016). Political commentators are also closely examining Trump’s controversial messaging as being particularly sensationalist, and thus particularly potent on social media sites (Parkinson, 2015). As SNSs are able to connect candidates with their audiences, some are even starting to look to Silicon Valley as the cause of the rise of populist candidates like Trump (Bilton, 2016). This is a slightly different narrative of social media control. As masses of users are fuelled by the new opportunities for sharing messages, they are working to dominate the media cycle, drowning out the arguably more measured traditional news sources, and running with the latest topic du jour. Both users and platforms are implicit in this new model.

In my Campaign

The ‘Using or Being Used?’ theme features prominently in my campaign in the use and application data analytics. I was able to monitor the response from my audiences to different messages and posts through Hootsuite, Gephy and Iconosquare. I then catered my content to what topics were popular within the circles that I was targeting as well as what times during the day enabled the maximum exposure of my content. In this context I was working to advertise my brand to different publics using the information I was provided with.

Mapping conversations around 'Raisins'
Mapping conversations around ‘Raisins’

In the same way outlined by Hinton and Hjorth, my conscious actions to expand the audience and popularity of my brand works to contradict the idea of social media being a personalized platform for users. While I was trying to cater to different conversations, I reaped rewards for interpreting data about users, suggesting that SNSs provide very valuable services to advertisers, and themselves.


Facebook’s role in the public domain is no longer limited to the internet and its recent experiments is a very pertinent example of the power and influence of huge companies that have grown into new spaces and territories where there is little transparency or regulation. With little precedent for the breadth of audience and the potency of personalized advertising it is uncertain what this kind of power will lead to in the future. While it is unlikely that Facebook would ever openly bias itself against a particular figure such as Trump, due to the reputational costs it would face, its ability to influence without repercussions should be further scrutinized. SNSs in general must be recognized as platforms that are not for the sole benefits of the users, but for the businesses that they are.





Bilton, N. (2016, April 21). How Silicon Valley created Donald Trump. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from: http://www.vanityfair.com/news

Bond, R., Fariss, C., Jones, J., Kramer, A., Marlow, C., Settle, J., Fowler, J. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilisation. Nature. 489. 295-298.

Company Information. (2016). Retrieved April 22 2016, from: http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/

Danny, H. & Yadron, D. (2016, January 29). How Facebook tracks and profits from voters in a $10bn US election. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news

Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. Los Angeles: Sage.

Hobbes, T. (2015). The Leviathan. Retrieved from http://www.eblib.com

Nielson, S. (2014, January 14). Investing in Facebook: A comprehensive primer and analysis. Market Realist. Retrieved from: http://marketrealist.com

Nunez, M. (2016a, April 15). Employees ask Mark Zuckerberg if they should try to stop a Donald Trump Presidency. Gizmodo. Retrieved from: http://gizmodo.com

Nunez, M. (2016b, April 15). Facebook says it doesn’t try and influence how people vote. Gizmodo. Retrieved from: http://gizmodo.com

Parkinson, H. (2015, December 24). Can Donald Trump’s social media genius take him all the way to the White House. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology

Sifry, M. (2014, October 31). Facebook wants you to vote on Tuesday. Here’s how it messed with your feed in 2012. Mother Jones. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/politics

Social Media Update. (2013). Retrieved April 22 2016, from: http://www.pewinternet.org


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