Microtargeting: The Real Problem with Political Ads

White humanoid hand on blurred background using Big Data digital hologram 3D rendering

Implausible Deniability: News, Political Talk, and Music

Hosted By: Eric Nadelberg

They’ve Been Tailing You Like The Fox That Preys On The Rabbit.

“Secretly I’ve been tailing you
Like a fox that prays on a rabbit
Had to get you and so I knew
I had to learn your ways and habits
Ooooooh, you were the catch that I was after…”

When the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game lyrics © JOBETE MUSIC CO INC

  The argument for regulation is that these targeted ads are separating us into smaller and more fortified silos. They have become a menace to our participatory democracy. They are an irritant to our shared national goals and interests and are intended to be divisive. However, free speech issues come up in the conversation, and political ad policing itself remains a highly contentious issue. However, restricting microtargeted ad spending is finding a higher level of agreement, and a more nuanced view of political speech curbs on the part of social media outlets is shaping up.  

   The primary season hasn’t even started, and my mailbox floods with pleas for money and time. I’m an important to the party, the candidate, the cause, or so I’m told in many ways from numerous sources. How they find me is becoming a source of debate online and elsewhere. There are allies on both sides of the political spectrum, but opinions are vigorous on each side of the debate, and they are playing out in important ways. 

    Microtargeting Is The Problem

Microtargeted ads separate voters into smaller segments of the electorate and isolate them from the complexities of the issues facing the nation. The ability to surgically carve out the part of the voters you want to reach is a big problem to the concept of objective truth inside of the political biosphere.

This issue sorting isn’t new. We’ve seen it before. “Wedge issues” we call them. But with today’s Big Data analytics, it’s like the difference between carpet bombing and a drone strike. The former will destroy the target, but the collateral damage may not be worth the effort. But with a precision drone, the target is acquired, and no one else may even be aware of the action.

    We’ve all heard the story about the friend who gets baby ads on her Facebook feed before finding out she is pregnant. How about advertisements that seem prescient in offering something you were only thinking about yesterday? Is it email ESP or something else? What’s going on here?

    First off, blame the digital breadcrumbs that record our web activity and our online habits, and they are trackable and valuable. For example, a search for pregnancy detection kits will bring you diaper ads. A search for fly-fishing gear will also beget ads for Idaho vacation rentals. It’s a practice so common that we’ve become inured to how vulnerable we’ve become to this online hustle. The ability to slice and dice our personal and private information is almost infinite. If you are a retired left-handed electrician with an interest in ornithology, the campaign has a message for you.    

    If this seems intrusive and a bit creepy, you aren’t alone. Fueled by Facebook’s refusal to police truth in pollical ads, microtargeting is now on the menu as a way to ensure a degree of honesty as part of the process. One of the strongest voices to speak up for the idea is Ellen Weintraub, the FEC chairwoman.

   “Microtargeting of political ads may be undermining the united character of our United States.” She is quoted a saying this past week.

    Weintraub recommended that Facebook stop the practice of microtargeting. Doing so would “allow political ads while deterring disinformation campaigns, restoring transparency and protecting the robust marketplace of ideas.” she said.

   “Such ads also undermine the main remedy that the Supreme Court has set out for lies in politics: counterspeech,” she wrote.

    “Counterspeech is most possible where a broad public can hear the speech and respond.

      There is a growing chorus of those who are calling for changes. The appeals appear to be working, and Facebook is indicating it is open to banning microtargeting political ads. At the same time Twitter has banned all political advertising, a step that Facebook so far is unwilling to take. Snapchat and other social media platforms are also joining the discussion, and ad restrictions of varying strength will be in place for the 2020 election.

   Voters are the target, and opinion shaping is the main objective. This first step will open the political debate by broadening the channels of information. Instead of a drip system of discrete receptors, there’s a diffuse information sprinkler system at work, and everyone gets covered at the same time in the same way.

    One of the many lessons of 2016 is that our elections are vulnerable to information manipulation. My mailbox will probably get even more cluttered as the election season rolls in but at least everyone else is seeing the same thing and if it’s tainted the complaints will be noticeable

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