Targeted Divisiveness

Targeted divisiveness primarily refers to the use of social media by an individual or organization, especially through the use of bots, to search through user posts and profiles looking for characteristics that can be used to target that individual with multiple messages to amplify a cause that would pit one group against another. This could correctly be called propaganda. The difference nowadays with social media is the ability to target specific individuals based on self revealed preferences. Ads on social media work in much the same way except they are focused on selling a product or service.

An example of targeted divisiveness is the alleged use of social media to influence the 2016 presidential election. A Washington Post article reported that “[a]s many as 126 million Facebook users may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives. Twitter said it had discovered that 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, and more than 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.” The article further quotes a Facebook spokesperson in Congressional testimony saying “The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible. That foreign actors, hiding behind safe accounts, abused our platform and other Internet services to try to sow division and discord.” [italics are mine]

Further, a New York Times article reported that social media ads targeted divisions in America by sending conflicting messages to different users segmented by political and racial characteristics. This was also mentioned by Barack Obama in his interview with Prince Harry in which he warned against some of the perils of social media — in particular, its potential to create social divisions and spread misinformation.

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