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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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Police have arrested one of two suspects involved in a mass shooting at Austin's Sixth Street in the early morning hours on Saturday, leaving 14 people injured and two in critical condition.
The arrest was made by the Austin Police Department and the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. One suspect is still at large.
Police started receiving 911 phone calls at 1:24 a.m about a man that fired shots into a large crowd, and responded to a chaotic scene on the 400 block of East Sixth Street. Detectives are surveying video footage captured by bystanders and cameras on the scene to identify the suspect.
The Austin Police Department has narrowed down their search to two male suspects and believes there was "some type of disturbance" between the two parties.
No deaths have been reported. Fourteen victims are receiving treatment in a hospital in stable condition with one treated in an emergency room; two are in critical condition.
According to Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon, "almost all" of the victims are innocent bystanders but police have not ruled anyone out at this time.
Shooting on 6th Street Austin Texas 6-12-2021 (Aftermath) youtu.be
The shooting occurred on the weekend of the Republic of Texas Motorcycle Rally. With lots of people downtown, police say it was difficult to get EMS in and out of the scene. Police arrived while the scene was still an "active threat," officers "immediately began lifesaving measures" and drove six victims to the hospital in their squad cars, said Chacon, and four were transported in ambulances.
Chacon said that the incident is believed to be isolated, and they optimistic they will be successful in getting the two suspects into custody. Multiple departments, including APD, the FBI, Texas DPS and the ATF, are involved in the investigation.
Austin police are also requesting state troopers for patrol assistance in the coming days. Chacon stressed staffing issues are increasingly making responding to emergency calls "very hard."
"Overall, we remain a safe city," Chacon said. "Also keep in mind when you come downtown, you need to be safety conscious. Be vigilant of your environment and your surroundings."
Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 were killed and 53 wounded in Orlando, Florida. Anyone with information on the shooting is asked to call 911 or 512-472-TIPS.
This story was updated at 2:47 p.m. to include new information and will be updated as more details are revealed.
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Austin police are investigating a homicide in North Austin where a woman was shot and killed, just hours after a mass shooting in Downtown Austin hospitalized 14 people.
APD is working a suspicious death near the 1900 block of W Rundberg Ln. PIO is en route and will update with media staging location. PIO6
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) June 12, 2021
Police originally responded to Ironhorse Flats Apartments, 1900 block of W. Rundberg Lane, at 3:20 p.m. when they found the woman with multiple gunshot wounds. She was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 4:07 p.m.
No one is in custody as of yet but police are speaking with potential witnesses. Officials said they believe this was an isolated incident with no danger to the public but said possible relation to the downtown shooting has not been specifically ruled out.
Officers could not provide a suspect description and the relationship to the victim is still unknown.
This is a developing story that will be updated as details become available.
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