old people

The 2020 Election Will Take Place on Two Different Internets

Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

I know it’s hard to believe, but the 2020 election is right around the corner. It’s only 19 months away! It’ll be here before you know it, and you should begin steeling yourself now. Do you have a plan? Have you discussed it with your family? Do you have a pre-packed go bag in every room of the house? These are questions you must answer when the election comes for you. My point is: It’s important to think ahead. I’ve been thinking ahead a lot, unfortunately, and I can only imagine that the 2020 presidential election will be extremely weird as digital campaigning plays an even larger role in reaching potential voters.

This morning, Axios reported that, already, Donald Trump is spending very heavily to reach elderly voters on Facebook. 44 percent of its Facebook ad budget is going toward users who are over 65 years old, while the top-12 Democratic-primary candidates are spending 27 percent of their collective budget on the same age group. The data was collected by the communications agency Bully Pulpit Interactive. Young voters between 18 and 35 only account for about 4 percent of Trump’s Facebook spend.

As of now, Facebook is functionally the web’s Land Before Time, a virtual space for dinosaurs to congregate, interact, and become mad at whatever the algorithm puts in front of them. A Pew study last year found that only half of American teenagers use Facebook — down 20 percent from 2015 — and only 10 percent of respondents said Facebook was the online service they used most often. Facebook operates at a scale where pretty much any demographic is well represented, but it is flagging on the youth front.

So Facebook is popular among old people, which would not be so worrisome if they were not more likely to be — sorry, old people — incredibly naïve about what they see online. A recent piece by BuzzFeed News outlined the problems of an aging Facebook population like so:

Four recent studies found that older Americans are more likely to consume and share false online news than those in other age groups, even when controlling for factors such as partisanship. Other research has found that older Americans have a poor or inaccurate grasp of how algorithms play a role in selecting what information is shown to them on social media, are worse than younger people at differentiating between reported news and opinion, and are less likely to register the brand of a news site they consume information from.

This is the voting bracket that Trump — who is well known to concoct lies of all shapes and sizes, and blindly repeat distortions fed to him by hosts on cable news — is spending heavily to activate. Older people are more likely to vote, and they voted more for Trump in 2016. “Trump is using nativist language around immigrants in 54% of his ads,” Axios says. The president is making these spends on a platform that young people are less active on, which poses a problem for a platform like Facebook, since it is committed to the Brandeisian idea that the remedy for harmful speech is to counter it with more, opposing speech.

It is debatable to what extent targeted advertisements are effective, and the idea that a bombardment of targeted ads might directly convince someone to change their vote has been mostly dismissed by experts. But targeted ads are very good at confirming people’s own biases, and driving users to become further entrenched in positions they already hold. This was largely the aim of Russian troll farms, which used social media in 2016 to activate users around causes they already cared about, like immigration or gun control, rather than try to get them to change their minds or switch parties.

There are now more people online than ever before, using the internet more heavily than ever before, and the internet is no longer a sideshow or afterthought for political campaigning. Though the idea of old platforms getting usurped by newer, shinier ones with younger, more engaged users is not a new phenomenon — Facebook supplanted MySpace after all — the balkanization of platform identity will never be on greater display than in the upcoming election.

If Facebook represents a barely regulated arena of “angry boomer” politics, younger-skewing counterparts like Instagram, or Snapchat, or TikTok (all of which are mostly free from the feature bloat and confusing maze of services that Facebook offers, and which — as a result — do not suffer misinformation at the scale Facebook does) represent simplicity and clarity. If we assume that younger people tend to skew liberal, as studies have shown, then we can relatively safely assume younger-skewing app user bases will likely skew liberal as well. And if we assume younger people are less susceptible to misinformation, then we can assume the platforms they prefer are, too. It’s difficult to say how these platforms will affect political discourse. Instagram and Snapchat are arguably more about private messaging than algorithmic publishing, and that makes tracking sentiment and deploying programmatic advertising difficult, if not useless. A platform like TikTok, borne out of teen-favorite app Musical.ly, is loaded with first-time voters who get their information almost exclusively from online sources. Whatever shape candidate messaging takes there will be interesting to see.

Our conception of filter bubbles in the past has been as balkanized communities within a single online platform, carved up by algorithm recommendations. Red feed, blue feed. Going forward, we might see online communities separated into even stricter online buckets: different platforms entirely. This situation makes supposed cure-alls for discursive problems — exposing oneself to opposing viewpoints, civil debate, whatever — far more difficult to execute. How would you imagine an older person might encounter a younger person’s views on an app like Snapchat, where private messaging is the main form of communication, or TikTok, where … well, who knows what the hell Gen Z is doing on TikTok? For many boomers, Facebook might as well be the entire internet, and these sorts of demographic divides entrench Trump’s ability to activate older, passionate voters on Facebook, a group whose members are more likely to be conservative, without any counter.

Granted, it’s not like the platforms who appeal to all ages are any help. In the middle of these two poles, forming a sort of age-demographic no-man’s land, are Twitter (a platform that’s loud and fast-moving, and where fanatics talk past each other, and boomers and millennials fight for supremacy) and YouTube (which has never met an audience it won’t cater to, short of literal Nazism). Those are hardly solutions for people who worry that the upcoming election, and online self-separation, will only make people angrier and more entrenched. For Trump, however, that’s part of a winning strategy.

The 2020 Election Will Take Place on Two Different Internets