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Negative campaigns—or campaigns that work by painting opposing candidates in a negative light—have been used for decades. But today, thanks to information that can be gained from social media, these campaigns may be even more effective at influencing us than before.

Hosted by: Hank Green

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https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/voting-ballot-for-united-states-senators-election-hand-writing-choice-gm470197884-62814880
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[♪ INTRO].

These days, politics might seem dirty, with candidates dragging each other down in an attempt to rise to the top. But political mudslinging is not new.

It’s been around for ages—there’s just one big difference now:. Thanks to social media, politicians can step up their negative campaigns with subtle tactics that may be even better at influencing us. And that can feel disconcerting.

But fortunately, the better you understand what’s happening, the better you can avoid being influenced. Now, there’s a reason politicians sling insults at each other in the first place. Negative messages stick:.

They embed themselves in our brains better than positive ones. That’s because we have a tendency called the negativity bias. Our brains are more likely to notice, respond to, and be influenced by negative things.

And yeah, this is maybe frustrating. But it’s likely a survival mechanism:. Negative stimuli can be life-threatening, so we evolved to focus more on the bad stuff.

Unfortunately, lots of campaigning tools take advantage of this. One of the most common tactics is the good old-fashioned attack ad:. You know, political ads on the internet or TV that attack candidates as incompetent, hypocritical, or dangerous.

These have been around for decades, of course, but they’re becoming increasingly common. Like, during the U. S. presidential campaign in 1960, only 10 percent of televised ads were negative.

During the 2012 campaign, only 14 percent were positive. Oddly enough, studies have shown that these ads aren’t that good for changing how people vote. But, although the evidence is mixed on this, one thing they may do is influence whether or not people go to the polls.

And that can play out in a couple of ways. For instance, a 2014 study found that when negative ads were aired early in a campaign, they mobilized voters to go to the polls. The author speculated that, at this point in an election, negative ads may actually help people make a decision about a candidate and give them the confidence to go vote.

On the other hand, when negative ads were shown later in a campaign, people were overall less likely to vote—possibly because negative ads wore away at their confidence in their preferred candidate. And although the ads probably didn’t change a lot of votes, influencing turnout can be a very big deal. Like, if an ad gets your supporters to hit the polls on Election Day, or gets your opponent’s supporters to sit out the election, that is a successful ad.

But attack ads can also flop. And a major reason they can fail is because different people have various beliefs and personalities. So a message that resonates with one person could totally fall flat with another.

That’s why organizations came up with a tactic called psychographic targeting. The general premise here grew out of demographic targeting, which has been used in both marketing and campaigning for a long time. Basically, the goal of that is to calibrate messages to people’s demographics— things like age, gender, ethnicity, and education level.

Psychographic targeting, on the other hand, is microtargeting based on personality traits. Traditionally, marketers and campaigns have used psychographics to make guesses about broad personality characteristics based on where people live or the TV program they’re watching. For instance, they could make some generalizations about a given population based on what percentage of people were tuned in to football, versus, say, Iron Chef.

And they could use those conclusions to target their ads to the populations most likely to buy certain products. But now, using social media, they’re not just broadly targeting certain populations: organizations can target an ad to an individual based on that person’s online behavior. And it’s easier than you might think.

In a 2013 study of 58,000 people, researchers found that they could summarize a person’s key personality traits based entirely on their Facebook “likes.” For instance, they found that they could reasonably predict participants’ level of openness based on whether they liked “Plato” (the philosopher) or the “I don’t read” page. So not a huge surprise there that you can predict openness based on whether someone liked “I don’t read.” But this is huge for organizations looking to create micro-targeted ads— because personality traits like openness are strong predictors of political ideology. Political campaigns began using psychographic data gleaned from social media during dozens of elections in 2014.

But the method played a more notorious role in the 2016 U. S. presidential election, when a company called Cambridge Analytica harvested information from millions of. Facebook profiles and used it to develop dozens of micro-targeted political ads.

Researchers don’t know what effect these ads had on the 2016 election. And Cambridge Analytica is no longer in business— but psychographic targeting is still used by other companies. And with so much of our lives taking place online, we’re more and more susceptible to this kind of targeting.

Fortunately, if you want to shield yourself from being manipulated this way, there are a few things you can do. For one, you can check out your social media settings to make sure you’re not sharing personal information with advertisers and other organizations. That may not solve the whole problem.

But when you see headlines or ads that appear to demonize a candidate, you can do some research—like, check if that source is credible and see what other reliable sources are saying. That can help you figure out if what you’ve seen is true and informative or if it is misleading or even deliberate misinformation. Taking that extra step, being aware of our negativity bias, and researching candidates’ specific policies, can help you make sure you’re thinking and voting as independently as possible.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! And if you want to learn more about the psychology of voting, you can head over to our psych channel and check out our video on how politicians are never just asking questions. [♪ OUTRO].