What is microtargeting?

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(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Twitter has banned political ads, and Facebook is now considering limiting the use of a method of political advertising called microtargeting, Politico reports.

What is it?

Basically, microtargeting allows a political candidate to use a technique to target one specific voter.

That means the ad you’re seeing for Candidate A will likely be different than the ad your neighbor is seeing or even your spouse.

The ads you see come from data not just from Facebook, but public records like your voting history.

Information from you such as:

  • Demographics (zip code, gender, age)
  • Pages you like on Facebook
  • Interests based on Facebook activity
  • Voter records (how often you have voted, not who you voted for)
  • Records from political parties

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say Candidate A is trying to post a Facebook ad about health care to voters within 20 miles of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

They could target that ad to:

  • People over the age of 18
  • Within 20 miles of Sioux Falls

They could also target the ad to:

  • Women
  • Ages 24-34
  • Within 20 miles of Sioux Falls
  • Interested in: Parenting (using Facebook data, Candidate A can find people who are likely parents)

Candidate A‘s campaign could refine that ad to make the text appeal to health care for children.

The campaign could also do a specific ad for veteran’s health, targeted to:

  • Men
  • Ages 55+
  • Within 20 miles of Sioux Falls
  • Likes: Veterans Administration on Facebook

That’s just the surface of microtargeting.

Things get more complex when Candidate A uploads data of public voting history or political party data such as volunteering or previous donations to another campaign. Candidate A‘s campaign will tie that information with your Facebook information to further target the ads.

They can also create a “look-a-like” audience to find people who have similar habits as their supporters.

How it’s been used

Microtargeting was a huge part of the 2016 election. President Donald Trump’s digital director told 60 Minutes that the campaign would send 50,000 different ads each day to microtarget voters.

2020 campaigns on both sides of the political spectrum are doing similar tactics to target voters.

This practice is coming under fire by privacy experts because it can manipulate voters.

Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, is the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission. This month she wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post calling on the end of microtargeting.

“Just because microtargeted ads can be a good way to sell deodorant does not make them a safe way to sell candidates,” she wrote. “It is easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability because the public at large never sees the ad.”

Her argument isn’t that Facebook should end political ads, but the way they allow campaigns to target voters.

“It would be unwise, unnecessary and counterproductive for political speech to be shut out of the Internet advertising market altogether,” Weintraub wrote.

On Twitter, she released a three-point plan for Facebook to implement if they get rid of microtargeting.

HOTPLAN!@facebook & @Google are considering ditching “#microtargeting” political ads – the technique foreign & domestic actors abused in 2016 to spread disinformation & sow discord.Problem: If they *do* quit microtargeting, what should replace it? I have a proposal. 1/5

— Ellen L Weintraub (@EllenLWeintraub) November 8, 2019

  1. Target political ads only by large and fully disclosed geographic areas.
  2. Allow targeting no more specific than one political level below the election at which the ad is directed.
  3. Nix “custom audiences” programs, which defeat any efforts to effectively publicly disclose how ads are targeted.

Facebook has taken steps to lessen microtargeting by no longer allowing ads to be target based on race.

“We disabled the use of other exclusion-targeting categories that we determined, on their face, may have been misunderstood to identify a group of Facebook users based on race, color, national origin or ancestry,” the company wrote in a letter to Sen. John Thune.

The company also opened up an Ad Library to let the public see all the ads run by a specific Facebook Page and how they targeted the ad.

“We’re committed to creating a new standard of transparency and authenticity for advertising,” Facebook product manager Satwik Shukla said in a statement.

KELOLAND News is going to show you a tool to see what influences the ads you see on Facebook and which 2020 presidential candidates are targeting South Dakota voters. Stay tuned for updates throughout the day.