Meet the BBC’s 'undercover voters' for the US midterms – BBC

As US voters get ready to vote in the midterms, a number of recent news events are shaping their social media feeds – the raid on Trump's home in Mar-a-Lago as he's investigated for possibly mishandling documents, abortion bans, and debates about gun rights. For Americast and Newsnight, BBC's Disinformation and Social Media correspondent Marianna Spring is investigating what voters are recommended online at a turbulent time for US politics.
I've created social media accounts belonging to five fake characters, who reflect views from across the political spectrum in the US. The people I created are based on data by a US think tank which defined types of voters after surveying more than 10,000 randomly selected US adults.
I've given each of them five profiles across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter – with names and computer-generated photos. They are: Larry, the Faith and Flag conservative; Britney from the Populist Right; Gabriela, the less political Stressed Sideliner; Michael, the Democratic Mainstay; and Emma from the Progressive Left.
After just a week of running the accounts, Britney – the Populist Right Voter – has already been recommended and has encountered pages on Instagram and Facebook continuing to promote disinformation that Trump really won the 2020 election. She's also come across similar content on TikTok. False claims are sometimes accompanied by violent rhetoric in reference to Trump's opponents.
In contrast, the accounts belonging to Michael – the Democratic Mainstay, and Emma – the Progressive Left voter, have been pushed memes celebrating the investigation into Trump and quizzing why this didn't happen sooner.
Britney's feeds include suggestions that the recent raid on his home in Mar-a-Lago just confirms he was actually victorious and the State is out to get him. Several of these pages opt for phrases like "Trump won" rather than "stop the steal", which was the term used on social media ahead of the riots at the Capitol.
Those riots – and the wave of false claims about fraudulent voting in their build-up – have marked a turning point in the US. Now, more than ever, there are questions about how misleading and harmful posts online could affect voters heading to the polls, and social media sites have made fresh commitments to tackle it.
The BBC's experiment so far suggests those same false claims about "ballot mules" and "ballot trafficking" from the 2020 election continue to spread online. Britney has also come across other anti-Semitic conspiracies about sinister global plots – and been recommended conspiracy-inspired pages.
TikTok told the BBC, "We take our responsibility to protect the integrity of our platform and elections with utmost seriousness."
It says it prohibits election misinformation, "provides access to authoritative information through our Election Centre" and works with independent fact-checking organisations.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, says "it has hundreds of people across more than 40 teams working on the midterm elections", as well as "robust measures in place to combat misinformation". That includes partnerships with 10 fact-checking organisations in the US.
Larry – the Faith and Flag conservative – has been recommended similar content about the raid on Trump's home, as well as repeated pages promoting guns and other weapons.
However, the feed belonging to Emma – the Progressive Left voter – also featured more about influencer Andrew Tate, recently banned from Instagram and Facebook for promoting misogyny online. The videos on her feed rejoice his ban, whereas none of the other older voters have encountered anything similar.
The account of Gabriella – the undecided voter – hasn't been exposed to much politics at all, whether Trump or Tate. Her profiles are generally apolitical and so, instead, her social media feeds are dominated by posts about her hometown of Miami, fashion, dance, and saving money during the cost of living crisis.
The profiles are all informed by data from Pew Research Center, which defined nine different typologies of US voters who sit along the political spectrum after conducting a wide-ranging survey in 2021.
The BBC has selected five of those nine types and based the characters on data about their demographic, age, interests and opinions on different political issues. The five types chosen aim to reflect a cross-section of the US electorate with a range of views and backgrounds.
The Democrat-leaning and Republican-leaning groups that the characters are based on offer insight into what the greatest proportion of active voters on the political right and left can be exposed to online. The more apolitical Stressed Sideliner type makes up relatively less of the electorate compared to all of the other right or left-leaning groups.
I'll be logging on regularly to each of the accounts for a similar period of time to like the kinds of posts they would, check what they've been recommended, and see where the social media algorithms take our characters. I use a VPN on each of the phones, so my location can be set to the US.
According to research from Pew, around seven in 10 Americans use social media – and this is one of the only ways of interrogating the subjective social media worlds of different voters that we can't usually access.
While it can't offer an exhaustive insight into what every US voter could be seeing on social media – and they don't have friends or followers – it gives us a snapshot into what different types of voters across the political spectrum are exposed to when they log onto their phones.
There are a series of recent news events that are shaping some of the voters' social media feeds. The raid on Trump's home in Mar-a-Lago, as he's investigated for possibly mishandling documents. The Roe v Wade ruling that made abortion legal across the US was overturned. The war in Ukraine, debates about gun rights and a cost-of-living crisis across the world.
Their accounts are all private – and they don't comment or talk to anyone real. They just like, follow and join groups, pages and accounts as per their interests and recommendations.
Here's an explanation of who they are and what they like.
Larry is what is known as a Faith and Flag conservative. This group has the oldest voters according to Pew's research – with a third over 65. Larry, a retired insurance broker, is 71 years old. This group is also the least diverse, with the highest proportion of non-Hispanic white voters, as well as the highest share of male voters.
What would Larry like on social media? He has very conservative values and has followed and liked pages that are pro-guns and the US Second Amendment. He is loyal first and foremost to the Republican party and whoever represents them, which most recently has been Donald Trump – and likes pages about this. Fox News is the main place this voter group goes for news, according to Pew's data.
For him, religion is very important in public life. He is an evangelical protestant who is married to a woman and has grown-up children. He has followed several anti-abortion pages and groups.
He doesn't like the federal government having too much power. Instead, he's liked lots of groups and pages about his local area and community in Oneonta, Alabama. He has also followed several US army pages.
Britney, 50 years old, is the Populist Right character. She votes Republican, but unlike Larry, she's much more critical of big business. She likes some posts on social media opposing billionaires and supporting higher taxes for big corporations. She also follows pages about unfounded conspiracies like the Great Reset and New World Order, which tap into the idea that the very rich are orchestrating a sinister global plot.
She is very supportive of Trump – and the possibility he'll run for re-election in 2024. Her loyalties lie with him rather than the Republican party itself.
The Populist Right group is overwhelmingly white – but the 54% of voters who fall into this group are female. It is also one of the least highly educated groups with just two in 10 graduating from college. Recently-divorced Britney and her children live in Houston in Texas, where she works as a school secretary and takes part in parent groups online.
Half of this group opposed Covid-19 vaccines – so Britney likes and follows some anti-mask and anti-vaccine content on social media. Like Larry, she is also religious and follows many anti-abortion accounts and pages. Fox News is also where she gets her news, according to research – and it's the outlet she was recommended lots on Twitter when she first signed up.
Gabriela, 44 years old, is a floating voter – and Pew's research dubs this group Stressed Sideliner. Her views vary and she's not really that interested in politics. She likes music, dance, fashion – and topics that are generally apolitical on social media.
This group is 56% women – and has the highest share of Hispanic voters compared to all the other groups. Gabriela lives with her husband and children in Miami, Florida, and likes and follows pages about her local area, as well as the Hispanic community there.
About one in four Stressed Sideliners live in lower-income households. Gabriela has liked lots of groups and pages about saving money on monthly shopping. She is a nanny, so has also joined lots of parent groups and others advertising work.
Her views on social issues vary. According to Pew's research, on abortion, banning guns, legalising marijuana and making university free, Stressed Sideliners align with Democrats. But she's more conservative on the death penalty and supportive of the police. She has liked some pro-choice content.
Michael, 61 years old, is part of the Democratic Mainstay group. This is the most diverse group, with the highest proportion of black voters at 26%. According to Pew's research, three quarters of this group are religious – and it has the highest proportion of black protestant voters. Michael really values faith and family. He's interested in pages linked to churches in his local area, as well as US and black history.
He's been a committed Democrat for years. He likes lots of pages, groups and accounts linked to the party, as well as popular politicians like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Barack Obama.
Democratic Mainstays are slightly older and have less formal education than other Democrat-leaning groups. Michael is a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where he lives with his wife and kids.
He is economically more liberal. On social media he follows various teaching unions and charities that help families make ends meet. But he is more moderate on other social issues and is pro-military. He prefers left-leaning news outlets, including CNN.
Emma is the most liberal of all the types – 48% of this group has received a university degree, and most of them are white. Emma attended university and lives in New York City with her girlfriend, where she is a graphic designer. The creative arts are very important to these voters, according to Pew's data. Emma follows accounts about art and film.
This group is made up of younger voters – with a third under 30. They are also the least religious of all of the groups. Emma is 25-years-old and an atheist.
According to Pew, these voters are likely to get their political news from NPR and The New York Times – which are pages Emma follows.
Progressive Left voters are very passionate about racial and gender equality – 88% judge there to be serious discrimination against black people. Emma follows lots of accounts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She is also pro-choice and passionate about the environment. Emma likes a variety of pages about intersectional feminism, women's marches and LGBTQI rights, including supporting the transgender community. She follows environmental activists – and she supports the legalisation of marijuana, liking several pages that promote this.
Emma and Larry are both the most politically engaged according to Pew's research. They voted at the highest rate in the 2020 Presidential election, they post about politics online and they donate to campaigns too.
Where can you keep up with the Undercover Voters?
Listen to Americast on BBC Sounds and tune into BBC 2's Newsnight for regular updates on what these profiles are recommended around major news events, and investigations into how they are targeted in the build-up to the midterms.
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