How Tech Companies Are Responding to Political Ad Targeting

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By Samantha Dorn, Staff Writer

Some of the biggest technology companies in the country involve changing the ways that political campaigns and other groups can target voters on their websites.  Through a marketing strategy known as “microtargeting,” political campaigns and groups use computer data to show a user highly specific advertisements based on their personal preferences or online behavior. [1]   But microtargeting has been criticized for singling out groups that may be susceptible to misinformation. [2]


According to MNI Targeted Media, a company that specializes in advertising and media planning for businesses, microtargeting is “the love child of predictive analytics and data insights.” [3] It uses consumer data and demographics to create audience segments, predict buying behavior of like-minded individuals in a particular audience, and use hyper-targeted advertising to influence the audience’s behavior. [4]   In politics, campaign strategists use voter information and additional information from surveys to find audiences. [5]   Based on their audience’s characteristics and behaviors, strategists can infer the audience’s opinions and voting habits, and then use this information to connect with people who are likely to vote for their candidate. [6] In addition, microtargeting gives these strategists an idea of how well their candidate and specific issues will fare on election day. [7]


Tech companies have varying approaches to handling political ads on their forums.  On one end, Facebook has stated that it would no longer fact-check political campaign ads, but is considering increasing the minimum number of people that can be targeted through political ads. [8]   On the other end, Twitter has banned all political advertising from its site. [9]   And Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, announced that political ads can only target users based on their age, gender, location, and the content of a page that the user is currently viewing—but not based on browser history or online behavior. [10]


These changes in policies stem from concerns that these microtargeted ads have been used to spread misinformation, such as the ads purchased by Russian entities in order to influence the 2016 vote. [11]   In addition, some are concerned about personal privacy given minimal government regulation because a user’s browser history allows marketing companies to look into one’s personal interests. [12]   Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, says that there is no privacy in this regard: “Anonymity has been crucial to our political process.  It’s the reason for the secret ballot, it’s the reason the Federalist Papers were anonymous.” [13]   Some states such as California and New York have enacted or updated legislation requiring that advertisers disclose who paid for an ad or have political ad archives, but because these state laws only extent to state and local elections, the impact on political advertising is limited.< [14]


With digital political ad spending expected to reach $2.9 billion in 2020, lawmakers, technology executives, and advocacy groups are calling for greater transparency. [15] However, the Federal Election Commission, which oversees political ads, has suffered from a number of vacancies and disagreements over updating rules, making it more difficult to regulate advertisements. [16]   It is unknown whether uniform rules will be agreed upon for the upcoming presidential election, but based on the current lack of uniform rules regulating political ads, it appears unlikely that a framework will be.



[2] Id. 


[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.







[13] Id.


[15] Id.

[16] Id.

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