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A monthly series from the Web Foundation

Healthy democracy & micro-targeted political ads: you can't have one with the other

The web has transformed political campaigning. Gone are the days when direct mail or the 30-second TV spot were the most powerful tool in a candidate’s box — we’ve entered the age of online advertising. 

Social media platforms have become the chief arena in which campaigns are fought and narrowly targeted advertising is perhaps the most powerful tool campaigns have to win elections, giving candidates the power to tailor their message to voters based hundreds of demographic, personality-based and behavioural factors.

This has a profound impact on democracy. Elections the world over — from Kenya to Italy to the US and beyond — have already seen the negative consequences of micro-targeted political ads.

As candidates move on from traditional campaigning and embrace digital politics, we must face up to the danger of narrowly targeted ads and safeguard our elections.

That’s why we called on Facebook to suspend micro-targeted political ads globally.

Here we untangle online micro-targeted advertising and why democracy is healthier without it.

What are micro-targeted political ads?

Political candidates can harness micro-targeted ad tools to send messages to a small slice of the electorate by selecting from a wide array of targeting options and user interests.  

For example, a candidate can target two audiences of voters in a specific city: one group who have “some high school education,” are unemployed, and are interested in gambling; and another group who are high earning college grads, with a new job, who are interested in luxury goods.

Why they're a problem

We need a shared understanding of what candidates and parties stand for to have constructive, honest political debate and fair electoral campaigns. But the highly tailored messages in micro-targeted ads can result in completely different understandings of who the candidates are and what they believe. And when these ads are only seen by a handful of people, their claims are nearly impossible to challenge or fact-check.

By erasing the shared experience of democracy with contradictory — and oftentimes misleading messages — micro-targeted ads threaten the integrity of our elections.

Micro-targeting in numbers

789%Growth in online ad spending from the 2012 US presidential election to the 2016 presidential election (AdAge)
 
35 Number of countries where Facebook provides heightened transparency for political ads (Privacy International, as of October 2019)

5.9 millionNumber of ad variations run by the Trump campaign on Facebook in just six months during the 2016 campaign (The Guardian)

35%Percentage of American voters who believe misleading information is the biggest threat to keeping elections safe and accurate (PBS NewsHour)

18 cents — Amount spent per citizen in Malta on Facebook advertising ahead of the May 2019 European Union election, the highest per-citizen rate among EU member states. In contrast, Malta spends approximately €2.50 per citizen per week on military expenditures. Nearly €17 million total was spent across the EU during the campaign (Who Targets Me?)
"You take your donor list and you upload it, and tell Facebook to find everybody else who might want to be my donor. And then it automatically blows it out to everybody who looks like, demographically, the people that have already given to you, and then you ask those people for donations — that can be incredibly powerful."
 
Channel 4 News analyses the impact of micro-targeting during the 2017 presidential elections in Kenya

Let's talk transparency

Currently, Facebook provides transparency only around very broad demographic targeting criteria in its ads transparency tools — leaving users in the dark about the very specific demographic and behavioural reasons they are being targeted. Further transparency is required to understand exactly how candidates are using the tool.


Measuring big tech's transparency efforts

How did tech companies score on providing information about ads running on their platforms?  Privacy International analysed Facebook, Twitter and Google's transparency tools (published October 2019).


What should an ad library look like?

An effective ad archive can empower researchers to better understand how micro-targeted political ads influence elections. So what should a platform's ad library look like? Mozilla convened 10 independent researchers to establish guidelines (published in March 2019).

"Data collection & analysis is being used in recent years for online political micro-targeting, often covertly & with unpredictable consequences, putting in question the ability of current legal frameworks to ensure a fair, clean & transparent electoral campaign."
 

The bottom line: Facebook must halt micro-targeted political ads

There's no question that social media is an important way for candidates to reach voters. But as our Director of Policy Emily Sharpe explains, granular targeting of voters undermines the political process.

That's why we urge Facebook to adopt policies that support democracy and uphold our human rights. The integrity of our elections depends on it.

Read Emily's blog post
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