The Psychology Behind Negative Campaigns on Social Media | The Triangle

The Psychology Behind Negative Campaigns on Social Media

Negative campaigns have been around for ages. “Mudslinging” is an musing word for negative campaigning, although I’m sure back in the day our leaders would throw a literal mudball at each other now and then.  

In the United States, the first election to be marked with a notable amount of negative campaigning was the presidential election of 1828, a rematch between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Supporters of Adams marked Jackson as an adulterer because his wife, Rachel Jackson (née Donelson) had not finalized her divorce with her first husband, Lewis Robards, a prosperous Kentucky planter. Perhaps she had reservations about her marriage to Jackson. (I know I would.) Anyway, Adams’ supporters continued to ridicule Rachel’s marriage status throughout the campaign. A few weeks before his inauguration, it was reported that the accumulated stress from all the mockery incurred the wrath of her heart problems and she died.  

However, if you think it was bad in 1828, negative campaigning is considerably harsh today. Thanks to the advent of social media, it is now a 24-hour long ordeal. With the amount of likes, shares and overall engagement, these smear ads get, they simply don’t disappear from users’ feeds. There’s a good chance you’ve seen a negative campaign ad for the upcoming Pennsylvania elections before watching a YouTube video or in your Instagram feed. So, why do politicians mudsling their opponents instead of telling voters while they disagree with the other side? The truth is negative messages stick and positive ones don’t. 

This phenomenon has to do with negative bias. Negative bias, or negativity bias has to do with our “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” Some researchers say negative bias is an evolutionary tactic our early human ancestors used to survive. I’d say politicians want us all to be grumpy pants. Take a recent attack ad posted on John Fetterman’s YouTube channel comparing Dr. Mehmet Oz to Dr. Nick, a bizarre doctor character from The Simpsons. The ad fails to tell us anything concrete about Fetterman’s or Dr. Oz’s positions on any issues, related to healthcare or the pharmaceutical industry or not. What the ad does succeed at is conveying how Dr. Oz is untrustworthy and not fit for the role as a senator. It creates for voters a negative perception of Dr. Oz as a professional as well as a personality and icon. What a blow! To us it may be incredibly funny, but to Dr. Oz and his campaign it’s as if Fetterman slugged him in the nose. 

The methodology behind the types of negative campaign ads we get on social media had to do with psychographic targeting. Psychographics are typically used by companies in order to make inferences on things they think you would like to buy. No wonder I have a nonstop outpouring of ads trying to sell me discount books, lavender scented Febreze, and My Chemical Romance posters (I swear on the vocals of Gerard Way I searched for My Chemical Romance posters once on Etsy like two years ago…)  

On social media, psychographic targeting sends certain messages to individual users based on their online behavior—your algorithms used to appeal to you. These messages are filtered through characteristics such as personality, values, beliefs, lifestyle, attitudes, demographics of the user, and interests, which have been dominant in ascertaining the political ideology users’ most identify with. For example, most of the time before I watch a YouTube video, nine out of ten times I’ll get an ad by John Fetterman’s campaign either praising him or mercilessly attacking Dr. Oz. This could be due to the fact that most of the videos I like and channels I’m subscribed to hold a liberal leaning bias. Of course, causation doesn’t always equal correlation. Based on a study done in 2013 where researchers analyzed 58,000 Facebook users’ likes, it was possible to determine which side of the political spectrum they landed on.

So, now you may be asking: how do these things affect the upcoming Pennsylvania elections on November 8? Well, the impacts of psychographic targeting, negative bias, and negative campaigning has already impacted the decision for who we vote for. Most of us probably know who we are voting for without researching our candidates’ positions on certain issues. Should we take what they say in these ads for granted? If you have time, I encourage you to read Christian DeBrady’s article in the News section of The Triangle, “Key Dynamics of PA Senate Race”, as the article provides information that isn’t based on pundit commentary. Negative campaigning through social media or on any other form of mass media should never be a reliable source for information. It’s best to watch out for the puddle, but not step in it and make a splash on your way to the voting booths.