Friday, March 11, 2022

Teaching Data Storytelling: Facebook Misinformation and Increased Voter Apathy


Kenton Rambsy 

In a graduate history course, we used Michelle Alexander’s concept of “The New Jim Crow” as an umbrella term to consider a multitude of voter suppression tactics. Anika Khan’s visualization reveals the extent to which Facebook misinformation targeted various voting age populations with the intent to increase political apathy. Anika’s project responds to ideas in Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.

“At first, no one could have imagined that Facebook or Twitter could be battlefield tools,” Wiley observes when describing his time working for Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct political consulting firm. “Russia did not have to disseminate propaganda” Wylie writes. “They could just get the Americans to do it themselves, by clicking, liking, and sharing.”

In addition to analyzing data related to voter disenfranchisement and suppression tactics, we also explored materials related to misinformation on Facebook. We worked with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities’ (MITH’s) archive, “the Internet Research Ads Agency site”— a website contains over 3,000 Facebook advertisements that the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-linked “troll farm,” purchased in the run-up to the 2016 election campaign. We further catalogued this dataset into different categories to assess how racial profiling plays a role with misinformation.

Anika’s visualization points to voter ID laws, targeted misinformation campaigns, and an increase in voter disillusionment as having a direct bearing on the 2016 election. Her visualizations does not point to one specific problem. Instead, she points to a several factors that might have played a role in dissuading voters, especially black and brown people.

Data storytelling is a crucial practice in my courses. The process allows my students and I to be interactive readers, and actively translate concepts we discuss. More than just a digital humanities methodology, data storytelling presents us with different ways of authoring and presenting research.

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