Facebook has made a mint by enabling advertisers to identify and reach the very people most likely to react to their messages. Ad buyers can select audiences based on details like a user’s location, political leanings and interests as specific as the Museum of the Confederacy or online gambling. And they can aim their ads at as few as 20 of the 1.5 billion daily users of the social network.
But microtargeting, as the technique is called, is coming under increased scrutiny in the United States and Europe. Some government officials, researchers and advertising executives warn that it can be exploited to polarize and manipulate voters. And they are calling for restrictions on its use in politics, even after Facebook, in response to criticism, recently limited some of the targeting categories available to advertisers.
“It has essentially weaponized ad technology designed for consumer products and services,” said Sarah Golding, the president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, an industry organization in Britain. Her group recently called for a moratorium on political microtargeting. “There is a danger that every single person can get their own concerns played back to them,” she said.
Facebook is just one player among tech giants like Google and Twitter that also offer data-mining services to try to influence consumer and voter behavior. But Facebook’s gargantuan reach, vast holdings of user data and easy-to-use self-service advertising system have made it a lightning rod for political microtargeting.
Much of the new attention being paid to microtargeted advertising has emerged from investigations into how Russian groups interfered in elections and how the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users. Microtargeting, they have found, was a central tool for foreign groups trying to interfere in elections.
In Britain, a report in July on political campaigning from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the government data protection authority, called for an “ethical pause” on the use of personal information in political microtargeting so that regulators and companies could consider the technology’s implications.
“These techniques raise fundamental questions about the relationship between privacy and democracy, as concerns about voter surveillance could lead to disengagement with the political process,” Elizabeth Denham, the British information commissioner, wrote in the report.
Last month, a report from a British Parliament committee investigating fraudulent news criticized the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behavior.” It also called for curbs on some micro-targeting.
New research on how groups tied to the Kremlin exploited the technology during the 2016 presidential election in the United States is also raising concerns.
A report this week from Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described how a Kremlin-linked group, called the Internet Research Agency, used Facebook’s ad system to identify nonwhite voters. Then the group tried to discourage those people from voting.
A week before the election, for instance, the Russian group paid Facebook to aim an ad at users interested in African-American history, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X with a seemingly benign post. The ad included a photo of Beyoncé’s backup dancers. “Black girl magic!” the ad said, according to Facebook ads recently released by federal lawmakers.
Then on Election Day, the same Russian group sent the same Facebook user demographic an ad urging them to boycott the presidential election.
“No one represents Black people. Don’t go to vote,” the ad said.
“Russian groups appeared to identify and target nonwhite voters months before the election with benign messages promoting racial identity,” Professor Kim, who studies online political ads, wrote in the report. By singling out the same individuals on Facebook, she added, “these groups later appeared to interfere in the elections with voter suppression messages.”
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