Digital Media Manipulation

The latest conventional wisdom about digital advertising is that “everybody wins.” Consumers are targeted by advertisements that reflect their online search histories, and advertisers aren’t wasting their time trying to sell products to the wrong audience.

Tony Nadler’s research reveals quite a different reality, especially in the political realm. Companies work behind the scenes to collect data every time we touch our keyboard. “The digital influence machine enables political advertisers to try to find our vulnerabilities, then it allows them to send precisely targeted messages—often filled with highly distorted or false claims—to leverage our vulnerabilities for their influence,” says Nadler, an associate professor of media and communication studies.

Some of these advertisements will tell people what they fear the most. Digital ads tend to be a more effective tool for these groups than TV ads, which hit a broader audience. These “weaponized” digital influence campaigns seek to amplify existing resentments and anxieties, create distrust and influence decisions. The lies change behavior, from how we vote, to how we live our lives.

“Without transparency and a firm commitment to ethical constraints on how data-driven advertising works,” Nadler says. “these systems are a real danger.”

Nadler’s expertise is in conservative news, populism, media policy and digital media culture. He is the author of Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences (University of Illinois Press, 2016), named one of the best books on journalism in 2016. He is also a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, where his research seeks to understand how communities in metro Philadelphia think about trust in media.