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UW-Madison Professor Discusses Digital Interference in 2016 Election at Shorenstein Center Event

The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017.
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Omar Abdel Haq and Isabella E. Peña, Contributing Writers

Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led an online discussion Wednesday on her research into digital interference in the 2016 United States presidential election.

The event was the first in a series about misinformation hosted by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and co-sponsored by the NULab of Northeastern University. Kim described her work in her data-driven Project DATA — short for Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis — in which she and her colleagues collected advertising information from media platforms like Facebook around the 2016 presidential election.

The project explored the origins of groups that used advertising campaigns to spread misinformation and promote voter suppression.

Kim’s team determined more than half of the ad sponsors shortly before the election were “suspicious groups” that used targeted campaigns to influence the election’s outcome. Kim suggested some of those suspicious groups served as “intermediaries” for Russian actors trying to influence the election.

“There is a conditional dependence between Russian groups and the Trump campaign,” Kim said.

Kim’s research also identified racial differences in the targeted ad campaigns. One set of ads was specifically targeted toward white Americans and relied heavily on nationalist and anti-immigration sentiments. Other ads were targeted towards Americans of color and encouraged them to boycott the election altogether.

The research findings could be used to explore political extremism on the Internet and its role in deepening the partisan divide in the United States, according to Kim.

Paul C. Zwiebel, who attended the event, wrote in an email that he hopes Kim’s research will contribute to efforts to limit online misinformation.

“Professor Kim’s research is timely and of critical importance,” he wrote. “I hope that Professor Kim’s research enables social media platforms to formulate tools to block or label misinformation or propaganda.”

Correction: October 15, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the event was the second in a series. In fact, it was the first.

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Harvard Kennedy SchoolEvents2016 Election

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