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Social media bots may have influenced the 2016 election, but experts at The University of Texas are more worried about social media influencers changing the outcome of this year's presidential race.


It's increasingly common for digital content creators to participate in the political process. In an interview with WIRED, Samuel Woolley, the propaganda research director at UT's Center for Media Engagement, said influencers are hired by campaigns and even outside groups to convert their large followings into supporters for their candidates.

"The campaigning world is years behind the brand world, and influencer marketing is already huge in the brand world, so I'd be very surprised if this doesn't pick up in the next few years," UT undergraduate research assistant Ana Goodwin told WIRED.

But there are also "nanoinfluencers"—smaller-scale social media celebrities with less than 10,000 followers—who have a more direct relationships with their audience. Woolley said these real users are spreading misinformation the same way bots did during the last presidential election.

"If we're thinking about the ways in which different sorts of strategies and tech gets used in campaigns, nanoinfluencers are definitely among the most novel and problematic," Woolley told WIRED.

Social media platforms are cutting off political advertisements, so influencers are more capable of targeting voters in the last days of the presidential race. Woolley and the Center for Media Engagement published their research findings in mid-October detailing how real people are being paid to sway votes.

"Partisan organizations are leveraging these "authentic" accounts in bids to sway political discourse and decision-making in the run up to the 2020 U.S. elections. Political marketers tell us that they see influencers, particularly those with more intimate followings, as regarded as more trustworthy by their followers and therefore better positioned to change their behavior," the researchers stated in their findings.

And it's not just one political party engaging in this behavior. Both sides of the aisle have paid people who often don't reveal they made money in exchange for influencing their audience.

"Such influencers, far from being 'volunteer digital door knockers,' are paid, highly organized surrogates of political campaigns failing to report this new mode of politicking," the research states. "Social media firms and governments face serious challenges ahead in dealing with this new form of digital propaganda."

This issue represents one challenge in an array of misinformation campaigns. The UT media engagement center has done similar studies recently about political manipulation in encrypted messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Signal, as well as TikTok shaming in the COVID-19 era.

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