There was plenty of outrage to go around last week after revelations that Facebook data on some 50 million users were used to allegedly build profiles of voters, serve them tailor-made ads and try to help Donald Trump get elected.
While the backlash was fierce against Cambridge Analytica, the firm accused of deploying the ill-gotten data, some of the discussion missed the point. The trove of data on which the firm relied, providing such information as a user’s relationship status and their education history, is increasingly being used by political campaigns and candidates to target voters.
Most people are familiar with this phenomenon: You browse the web for a pair of sneakers and suddenly the shoes are following you as you read the news or scroll through social media. It might take days or weeks for you to shake the ads.
Picture that, but with Trump’s or Nancy Pelosi’s face following you around, and you’ll get an idea of what digital advertising will look like as we head into prime midterm election season. Political advertisers are expected to spend a record $1.8 billion on digital ads this year, up from $1.4 billion in 2016.
Who makes digital advertising so easy for campaigns? We do
Facebook users — 68% of American adults — volunteer their age, hometown and jobs, whether they have kids, where they vacation, whether they like “Duck Dynasty” or “Will and Grace,” or asked for updates from a local Indivisible chapter or the local Republican Party. As you browse the internet, third-party data trackers can follow your internet activity and add other bits of data to compile a substantial dossier on each person.
“They know what your IP address is, the keywords you’ve used, other sites you’ve gone to. If you go to Fox News a lot, they know,” said Gordon Borrell of Borrell Associates, a firm that tracks advertising data.
While data trackers make a lot of the information about your digital activity somewhat anonymous to protect privacy, the information can still be used by digital ad firms to match you with an IP address or social media profile.
Want to reach only 50- to 65-year-old women who are independents, comment on liberal Facebook groups and are interested in environmental causes? That’s easy. Want to show a candidate video to likely Republican voters in their 30s who are parents of school-age kids and own a home? Campaigns can do that, too.
How campaigns use your digital footprint
If a campaign wants to use digital targeting, there are a few options.
The more DIY-minded might craft a message for specific potential voters in their races, and then use Facebook’s powerful targeting features to find those voters, searching by geography, interests, age, gender and political leanings.
Clues to your political leanings could be what types of news stories you post, whether you have an SUV or an electric car registered in your name, and what other smartphone apps you use — all data that Facebook makes available to advertisers.
To pursue more sophisticated methods, campaigns pay data firms, including those that track people’s voting records and party registration, credit scores, shopping data, home ownership and other factors to narrow down which voters they want to target.
Once they have a list, campaigns can upload it to Facebook or other social media to match voters with their profiles, which help the data firms determine how best to reach them.
Bob Huff, a Republican California House candidate who paid Cambridge Analytica during his unsuccessful campaign for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, told the San Jose Mercury News that he targeted people who were predicted to be off-road vehicle enthusiasts to tell them about his record of supporting off-road vehicles.
Using a smartphone’s GPS information, digital ad and data firms can even flag people’s locations to show them relevant ads later. Someone who drives over a major bridge could get ads on their phone later about rising tolls. Or a fan who goes to a baseball stadium could be served with ads from a group supporting a bond measure to help build a new one.
In one extreme example of the practice, known as “geo-fencing,” anti-abortion groups sent ads to women who visited Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.
With so many people accessing social media on multiple devices, campaigns can easily identify the unique device IDs for the smartphones, tablets and laptops people use to reach them multiple times a day.
Why the jump to digital? Efficiency
During the 2014 midterm elections, political campaigns and groups spent less than 1% of their ad budgets online. In 2018, the share is expected to be more than 22%, according to Borrell Associates, a firm that tracks advertising data.
Many of those digital ads will hit California, where political advertisers are expected to spend the most this year by far.
Campaigns are always looking for smarter ways to spend their precious dollars, and digital advertising is much less expensive than traditional TV, radio and mail ads.
Additionally, the amount of digital data associated with a person helps campaigns tailor their messages, and metrics help them see whether a person clicks a link in the ad or watches an entire campaign video.
“It’s so cheap, and it gives you so much more feedback than a piece of mail ever could,” said Matt Shupe, a GOP consultant who helped manage Facebook ads for the last Republican National Convention. “It gives you the opportunity to optimize and refine a message.”
Especially early in the campaign season, before voters are bombarded by TV ads, digital ads can help campaigns identify supporters, add them to mailing lists and encourage them to donate or volunteer.
Creeped out? Here’s what you can do
There are plenty of people worrying about the effect of so many political digital ads and the data collection that makes them possible.
Among the concerns is that targeting could distort reality for voters. If a campaign knows, for example, that a certain group of voters doesn’t respond well to negative ads, it could show them only positive ones while it continues to run attack ads elsewhere.
Privacy groups have pushed for stricter controls on data collection by Facebook and other companies for years, and the most recent controversy even prompted Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to suggest he’d be open to more regulation of his company.
If you’re concerned about your digital activity being used for political ads, here are some things you can try:
• Since Cambridge Analytica’s practices were highlighted, a campaign urging users to delete their Facebook accounts has popped up. You can do that, or you can take other steps to minimize what Facebook knows about you, like lying about your personal details.
• Use ad blockers or other apps that block third-party trackers, which keep records of your behavior across the internet.
• Browse in Google Chrome’s incognito mode or use a virtual private network connection to increase privacy.
• Read campaign privacy policies before signing up for newsletters, visiting their websites or donating money.
• Think twice if you’re asked to connect with a political group, app or mailing list by logging into your Facebook account.