How Political Ads Target You
As election season ramps up, online political ads attempt to guess your political preferenes, thanks to the wide store of data collected on users.
When you see an online ad, you might assume it's just like a billboard dotting the Internet super highway, identical to everyone who passes by.
But that isn't the case for all online ads since many are targeted for your viewing for very specific reasons. And in this election season, campaigns use these targeted ads to take as much information away from users as it is giving them.
In the split-second it takes for an ad to display on the screen, advertisers can identify specific information about the viewer and choose ads to display based on that information. In some cases, this is to the users' delight: their favorite online shoe shop is having a sale on summer sandals -- yay, good to know. But these same people might be creeped-out to learn that political campaigns are getting in on this game, employing digital tools to gain the edge to put their candidate over the top.
How They Collect Data
Online advertising companies continue to collect data on what people read, watch, and do on the Internet in small files called cookies, which allows them to track Internet users as they move from site to site. This is the era of big data, after all, and companies are collecting Internet information on users to sell to advertisers and other interested groups.
These same practices are also increasingly used and expanded upon by political groups, who are interested in targeting specific groups of people with a tailored message. Some groups say targeted online political ads are no different from mailings from political campaigns, others predict far-reaching dangers stemming from the practice. Many voters, who are the subject of these tactics, often don't have a clue what is going on.
How to Tell If You Are Subject to a Targeted Ad
There is information on these ads which identify them as such, but it can be hard to find and these ads often surface in the most unexpected places, keeping voters in the dark.
Web-surfers can look closely at a political or issue advertisements for a small blue triangle in the upper-left hand corner or the words"Ad Choices" on the page. This symbol and wording means this ad is targeted for that user's specific viewing and isn't being shown to every person who reads that page.
Both of the country's political parties are using targeting and tracking tactics. In addition to establishing a social media presence, Mitt Romney's campaign hired digital director Zac Moffat, the co-founder of Targeted Victory, a firm that specializes in digital political targeting using voter registration data.
The chief digital strategist for the Obama campaign is Joe Rospars, the architect of the 2008 campaign's online operation, and his team isn't threatened by high-tech Republicans.
In addition to the candidates, there are political action groups also joining the fray using names whose political origins are innocuous-sounding, and since none of them are saying how they plan to target voters, it adds to the confusion.
Finally, since it isn't uncommon for a liberal campaign message to be flashed before a person visiting a conservative website and vice versa, so it can be a challenge to figure out what group has targeted you and why.
Specific users are chosen as a target for these specialized ads for many reasons. Campaigns may want to reach only reliable party members, those who live in certain states, or independents who might swing their way.
In order to get these potential voters, they pay companies to find them Internet users with certain characteristics, like news junkies, moms who visit child-oriented sites, or social influencers/advocates who frequently share information with others online.
While the campaigns and advocacy groups won't reveal how they target ads because they consider it a matter of strategy, there is consensus that some factors may make users more likely to see these messages.
Campaigns realize the power of the Internet and understand if they can corral a user who is active about political issues online, they can try to harness that interest into votes for their candidate or issue. This strategy builds on a study last year revealing that heavy Facebook users were more than twice as likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57 percent more likely to persuade someone to vote in a similar fashion, and 43 percent more likely to vote in general. And within this active group, if the campaigns can also target those who are actively consuming political information, they have a nice pool of people to target.
Beyond that, the reason you are seeing a specific ad could be anything, depending on the issue the group is focusing on and who they want to reach with it. Niche advocacy groups may target very specific behaviors, purchases and even nuanced information like where you have vacationed to further refine the targeted audience.
What is the Downside?
As political advertising catches up with digital space, debate over their intersection, and what is means for candidates, campaigns and voters, will simmer.
On one hand, advocates for the practice say there isn't anything overly sensitive about a person's political interests, targeted advertising online isn't unlike direct mail and it can help campaigns save money by advertising more efficiently, a factor that could level the playing field for smaller campaigns.
There are others who think the practice can verge on violating privacy and those who believe the trend could threaten the democratic process. If targeted advertising isn't vetted or verified -- and by its very nature, it often avoids this because the ads aren't like billboards, out for everyone to see and examine -- it could run the risk of being deceptive.
Say a political campaign finds out you lean conservative and are particularly passionate about the Second Amendment. The campaign could position its generally liberal candidate who's voted against some gun control measure as being in favor of your views. Without an understanding that this isn't a general ad, but one particularly targeted to sway your view on something, your vote may be manipulated.
What Can You Do?
According to ProPublica's June article, privacy advocates report there's no way to track what messages campaigns are showing to different targeted groups -- or whether politicians may pander to different voters. And while more details are coming to light, the practice is hardly new.
Companies have been providing this kind of information to campaigns for several years. Blocks of voters were targeted in Bobby Jindal's 2007 campaign for governor and the following year, the technique was used to slice and dice voting blocks in the battle of California's ban on gay marriage. But, as more people understand the wealth of online data and its privacy implications, they are making moves to safeguard it.
Earlier this year, President Obama unveiled a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which spells out online consumer privacy guidelines, and could serve as a basis for future legislation governing how Internet companies and the mobile industry can gather, store, share and use personal information.
This spring, the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains the national "Do Not Call" registry, called for Web companies to start a mechanism to offer a way for consumers to control the tracking of their online activities. Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have agreed to implement "Do Not Track," but how exactly websites and advertisers will have to respond to the setting isn't clear.
In addition to federal programs, states are getting in on protecting their citizens' data. Last month, California created a dedicated department to investigate privacy concerns, an important development for a state with a strong tech presence.
As we head into the fall, ramped-up election rhetoric and tactics are likely to stretch the limits of how campaigning slices and dices online information making it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation beyond what we understand. This will fuel an ongoing debate as we march toward electing the leader for the next four years -- and maybe the way we elect them in the future.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
Categories: News Desk