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How micro-targeted political advertising is devastating our elections


Older men in Arkansas may see a close-up photo of President Donald Trump putting his fist in the air, along with a message asking them to donate $ 30 to his campaign for a Super Bowl commercial.

Middle-aged women in California might see a photo of Trump pointing at a crowd asking them to donate “any amount” to the campaign.

Ahead of Election Day, politicians across party lines are expected to spend more than $ 1 billion to pester voters with millions of these cheap online ads that can be tailored to a voter’s most personal data – right down to a household or even an individual.

Experts warn that this ad targeting system is still vulnerable to tampering by foreign governments and domestic actors trying to influence the elections, just as it was in 2016. These attempts could get more complex this year as tech companies come with a dysfunctional federal election guards wrestle agency and use arbitrary security precautions that still offer many loopholes.

“So much money and attention is being spent online today with so few rules that if you want chaos, this is the place for chaos,” said David Karpf, professor of political communication at George Washington University. “And there are a lot of people who want chaos.”

According to Facebook, Russia-related accounts spent about $ 100,000 on Facebook advertising during the 2016 presidential election. The ads appeared to fuel the split on polarizing issues such as gun control and racial relations. That’s a fraction of the cost of a 30-second commercial on a major TV station.

But it was enough to cause trouble. In response, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have implemented verification policies that require advertisers to verify their identity with their organization’s tax identification number or other government issued ID. Twitter later banned all political ads.

“Microtargeting” enabled the divisive messages to reach small groups of voters in specific geographic locations based on their specific interests.

Google started this month restricting US advertisers from targeting political ads across broad categories like gender, age, and zip code. Facebook will continue to allow campaigns that target voters for any reason, including their most personal interests.

Such a targeting technology offers clear advantages.

A candidate running a TV commercial could reach a certain audience by watching “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”. But on Facebook, the same candidate can run a specific ad aimed at housewives in Atlanta who are moderate-minded, like hunting and have a master’s degree.

In Texas, for example, Republican strategist Chris Wilson said his survey found suburban women frustrated by red light cameras for a second term in 2018.

Abbott won and signed law to ban red light cameras in the state last summer. Wilson argues that microtargeting helps attract voters to specific issues.

Google and Facebook have spent years collecting amounts of data that are now helping campaigns convince voters, said Luca Cian, a professor at Darden School of Business who focuses on how marketing affects political campaigns.

“I can choose to have someone in a specific household see a specific ad,” he said. “And your neighbor might see another ad.”

It’s not just campaigns that run ads. Now, with the click of a button and a few hundred dollars, ordinary people or businesses can buy political ads aimed at specific groups of people.

The sheer volume of ads makes them almost impossible to follow.

“How does anyone start monitoring and monitoring tens of thousands … or maybe millions of ads?” Asked Ellen Weintraub, chairwoman of the Federal Electoral Commission, the taxpayer-funded surveillance agency that creates and enforces the rules for federal campaigns.

This is a problem for journalists who want to hold politicians accountable and for opposing candidates who may unwittingly be featured in charges made by political rivals.

In almost every type of race – from city council candidates to presidential elections – campaigns could struggle to spot false claims about their candidate online, said Jared Kamrass, Democratic campaign advisor.

“If a negative ad against my candidate goes digital, I can’t find out much about it unless someone takes a screenshot of it,” said Kamrass.

But there is a downside. The ads are helpful for lesser-known candidates or smaller local and nationwide campaigns that can now spend as little as $ 250 to reach hundreds or thousands of voters online, he said.

Tech companies have asked themselves many questions since the last presidential election: Should they even allow political advertising? Fact check? Are you cataloging them in a public database? Prevent them from targeting small groups of people?

Some companies have their own policy on political ads. The most radical step was taken by Twitter, which made little money with the ads. In November, CEO Jack Dorsey announced the website would reject all political ads from its platform worldwide.

The tech companies have to regulate themselves in part because the FEC has for years been bogged down with rules that would be tailored to the booming political online advertising industry. The agency does not have full executives and does not have the quorum required to consider new rules for ads or penalize campaigns for violating the law.

“We end up in a kind of chaotic state that we are in when your regulators stop regulating and there is a lot of money in the system,” added Karpf. “Of course it will end up going haywire.”

Despite widespread criticism from politicians such as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, Facebook is sticking to its plan to ban external fact-checkers from wrongly evaluating political ads.

The social network has admitted that the tools are not perfect. Sarah Schiff, a product manager for Facebook, said the goal is to make it “harder” to abuse the platform.

Even smaller platforms, including TikTok and Pinterest, have been forced to face the problem by banning political advertising entirely, as has Microsoft-owned LinkedIn. But none of these rules are foolproof.

Experts say political campaigns, foreign governments and trolls will continue to cross borders and test which messages, images or videos will reach potential voters based on their data.

“For democracy to work, you need a shared reality, that is, a shared understanding of who is saying what when,” said Daniel G. Newman, president of MapLight, a nonprofit that tracks political money, lobbying, and votes. “But when politicians say different things to different audiences, even to thousands of different small audiences, you can’t hold them accountable.”


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