Online Political Microtargeting in the United States

Online Political Microtargeting in the United States

Online political microtargeting is personalised advertising targeting the voters who are on the fence in a campaign, and are thus most susceptible to personalised political advertisements. In the US, microtargeting allows political campaigns to target swing states, which fluctuate between supporting Democrats and Republicans and possess considerable weight in the outcome of an election.”

By Agniete Pocyte

‘Political elites do not employ new communication channels with the aim of citizen empowerment, greater democratic deliberation, or any other normative goals’ [1]. The goal of investing in new media communication tools is to win elections.’

Online political microtargeting is personalised advertising which targets voters based on the predictions of an algorithmic model, manipulated from publicly available data and private data [2]. Facebook is the most popular advertising platform as nearly three-quarters of American adults use Facebook, and 44% of the adult population cite it as a part of their news sources [3]. Although Facebook is not the only social media site that functions as a news source, it is by far the largest [4].

Despite the focus on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, George W. Bush made use of similar, albeit less complicated, microtargeting. In 2004, Bush’s presidential campaign bought data on 5.7 million Michigan consumers from Acxiom, one of the world’s largest data brokers, and merged it with their own polling information to categorise Michigan voters into 34 ‘microtargeting segments’ [5]. With this information, the campaign created advertisements and scripted messages targeted at the narrow categories of voters through telephone and direct-mail messages. Mitt Romney’s 2012 US presidential campaign used micro-categories to target undecided voters with advertisements that emphasized different aspects of his campaign. Zac Moffet, the digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign stated: ‘two people in the same house could get different messages. Not only will the message change, the type of content will change’ [6].

A microtargeting strategy will rarely target more than a small portion of the voting population. That is because most of the population is either set on voting for a particular candidate or is extremely unlikely to vote. By targeting the voters who are on the fence in a campaign, and are thus most susceptible to personalised political advertisements, microtargeting becomes a cost-effective strategy. Most importantly in the US, microtargeting allows political campaigns to target swing states, which fluctuate between supporting Democrats and Republicans and possess considerable weight in the outcome of an election. Since 1980, the number of contested swing states has dwindled [7]. In 1976, 20 states were won by a margin of less than 5%. This number dropped to 11 states in 2004 and to just 7 states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Colorado) in 2008. The fact that US presidential elections are fought over ‘relatively small margins in a handful of states sets up conditions for continued importance of fine-grained tactical efforts’ to persuade a select group of voters [8]. That being said, ‘political elites do not employ new communication channels with the aim of citizen empowerment, greater democratic deliberation, or any other normative goals’ [9]. The goal of investing in new media communication tools is to win elections.

Although political microtargeting purports to engage with voters in a more relevant fashion, the threats to individual privacy, the electorate, and democracy outweigh the benefits. American voters do not have adequate control of their data and cannot dictate who uses it. Many organisations, including political campaigns, are under no obligation to protect user’s information privacy and political privacy. Moreover, microtargeting practices suppress certain voter populations and exacerbate the effects of the ‘filter bubble’ by channeling voters into informational silos. Due to the highly personalised nature of the messages in political ads, thousands of variations of the same ad exist to maximise voter receptiveness. Political campaigns do not publish a database of all the ad variations which makes it difficult for journalists and the general public to investigate the honesty of a particular campaign. Third parties including social media companies, data brokers, and data analytic firms, are unregulated and possess a questionable amount of political power if the effects of microtargeting are as extreme as purported by campaign managers. Regulations are difficult to implement due to alleged conflicts with freedoms of speech and expression and the lack of empirical evidence surrounding the effects of microtargeting. Technology has outgrown regulation and it is vital to keep the possible threats of microtargeting in mind not only for policymakers, but the voters as well.

N.B. ‘the ‘filter bubble’ is the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption’ [10].

 

References:

[1] Bimber, B. (2014). Digital media in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012: Adaptation to the personalized political communication environment. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 11(2), p.146.

[2] Gorton, W. A. (2016). Manipulating Citizens: How Political Campaigns’ Use of Behavioral Social Science Harms Democracy. New Political Science, 38(1), 61-80.

[3] Gottfried, J., & Shearer, E. (2016). News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. Retrieved 2 May 2018, from http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gorton, W. A. (2016). Manipulating Citizens: How Political Campaigns’ Use of Behavioral Social Science Harms Democracy. New Political Science, 38(1), 61-80

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bimber, B. (2014). Digital media in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012: Adaptation to the personalized political communication environment. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 11(2), p.146.

[8] Ibid, p. 144

[9] Ibid, p146

[10] Techopedia. (2018). What is a Filter Bubble? – Definition from Techopedia. [online]. Available at: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/28556/filter-bubble [Accessed 30 Aug. 2018]

Author’s further reading:

[1] Borgesius, F. J., Moller, J., Kruikemeier, S., Fathaigh, R. Ó., Irion, K., Dobber, T., … & de Vreese, C. (2018). Online Political Microtargeting: Promises and Threats for Democracy. Utrecht L. Rev., 14, 82.

[2] Ienca, M. (2017). Do We Have a Right to Mental Privacy and Cognitive Liberty?. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 2 May 2018, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/do-we-have-a-right-to-mental-privacy-and-cognitive-liberty/

[3] Tenove, C., Buffie, J., McKay, S., & Moscrop, D. (2018). How Foreign Actors Use Digital Techniques to Undermine Democracy. Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, UBC.

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