How political campaigns gather online data about voters
Oct 12, 2022

How political campaigns gather online data about voters

Some social media giants have banned or suspended microtargeted political ads. But campaigns have found workarounds.

They say all politics is local, and targeted advertising makes it hyperlocal. Campaigns have used troves of personal online data about voters to narrowly tailor political messages — sometimes in malicious ways. For example, providing false information about how to vote based on neighborhood, race or ethnicity.

But this kind of microtargeting is getting trickier. Twitter and TikTok have banned political ads completely. And Facebook has added new limits on how and when political ads appear.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino speaks with Samantha Lai, a research analyst at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Lai said the way social media platforms allow campaigns to microtarget users has evolved. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Samantha Lai: A lot of social media companies have changed what people are allowed to target on. So Facebook has limited the types of microtargeting allowed. For example, stopping advertisers from targeting people based on sensitive topics such as health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation. Are there other ways to still kind of get past these and still target people, albeit a less accurate format? Yes. Though we also see companies kind of working to try to limit the detriments that we have seen in the past.

Meghan McCarty Carino: So would you say that microtargeting this election is maybe a little bit less targeted than in 2020?

Lai: So that’s the hope. However, there’s a lot of data mining going on, and this isn’t just limited to social media companies. This is done by websites, applications, third-party cookies. There’s this thing called inferences that can be made. So even if you can’t target someone specifically based on their race and ethnicity, if you can target people based on their ZIP code, that’s still a stand-in for targeting by race and ethnicity.

McCarty Carino: What about outside social media? Are there other ways to target people?

Lai: One of such technologies include geofencing. So for example, in 2020, this technology was used at a church by CatholicVote, a private company, to target pro-Trump messaging towards churchgoers by collecting people’s religious affiliation without their notification or consent. So it can still be collected in means beyond social media from third-party actors.

McCarty Carino: So as an expert who’s watching this space, what are you going to be watching for in the future?

Lai: I predict that a lot of these ongoing problems are only going to continue existing unless governments and tech platforms and nonprofits work actively towards kind of seeing what the benefits and trade-offs are and finding ways to at least protect the rights of voters. On the flip side, at the end of the day, advertising in general is the best way that a lot of these companies are able to profit from what they do. So there are obviously different incentives at play here in terms of how many restrictions they’re going to place on these services.

Lai recently wrote about data misuse and disinformation in the 2022 elections for Brookings. She dives deeper into possible policy changes that could help, like better data privacy protection laws or extending the prohibition on voter intimidation at the polls into the online realm.

Though it’s getting harder to microtarget by certain sensitive characteristics, CNN reports that there are plenty of proxies, like what kinds of products people shop for, what music they listen to or what shows they watch. All data that is readily available online.

For instance, Florida Republican Marco Rubio’s Senate reelection campaign was reportedly going after lovers of Chick-fil-A and Ram trucks. While Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is targeting fans of the Dave Matthews Band and Tesla. It seems like in our current climate, so many of the consumer choices we make are political in some way.

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Daniel Shin Producer
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