Easily overblown, little-understood, and dangerous: Why we need to understand political microtargeting

Easily overblown, little-understood, and dangerous: Why we need to understand political microtargeting
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin after a meeting with politicians to discuss regulation of social media and harmful content in April 2019.Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images
  • We learned this week that the Trump campaign may have tried to dissuade millions of Black voters from voting in 2016 through highly targeted online ads.
  • The investigation, by Channel 4, highlighted a still little-understood online advertising technique, microtargeting.
  • This targets ads at people based on the huge amount of data available about them online.
  • Experts say Big Tech needs to be much more transparent about how microtargeting works, to avoid overblown claims but also counter a potential threat to democracy.

The Trump campaign in 2016 used online ads to try and dissuade Black voters from voting, according to an investigation this week by UK broadcaster Channel 4.

A cache of documents obtained by Channel 4 included a database of some 200 million Americans' Facebook accounts, broken down into characteristics like race, gender, and even conclusions about their personalities.

The database was split into different groups and one group, unsubtly labelled "deterrence," was disproportionately made up of Black users. The idea was to use tailored online ads on platforms like Facebook to dissuade this group from heading to the ballot box. (The Trump campaign has denied this report.)

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Trying to sway voters through advertising is not new, but Channel 4's investigation was a reminder of how the Trump campaign made use of a still little-understood type of advertising called microtargeting.

Microtargeting involves using the huge amounts of data consumers give away online about who they are friends with and what they like to target ads at them.


While microtargeting has long been part of what makes the likes of Facebook and Google so profitable, it really came under mainstream scrutiny in 2018 during the data leak involving political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Per investigations by The Observer in 2018, Cambridge Analytica used data to build up "psychographic profiles" of people in order to more accurately target them with political ads.

According to Channel 4's investigation this week, Cambridge Analytica was behind the 2016 ads targeting Black voters in Georgia.

And yet experts warn that while microtargeting is troubling, imputing the technology with mysterious abilities to persuade vast numbers of voters may be a distraction from real voter suppression. Ultimately, we need to understand the technology better.

Concerns about microtargeting could be overblown

The very broad strokes of how microtargeting works go like this: Your behavior online generates a wealth of data about what you are like.


This data is analysed by companies to try and draw as many conclusions about you as possible and build up a profile, from basic demographic details like your age right down to subjective things like your personality type.

When advertisers place ads on social media platforms they are able to tailor the intended audience for these ads according to these much finer details. The sell is vast scale and speed.

Felix Simon, a communications expert at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Business Insider that too often media reports on political campaigns using microtargeting take it as read their tactics have been successful in changing people's minds.

Although the Channel 4 documentary rightly pointed out that voter turnout among Black people fell in the districts where the Trump campaign deployed its "deterrence" campaign, Simon said this could be down to correlation rather than causation.

"I think what we see here is first and foremost a form of negative advertising which has a long and dirty history and can have voter suppression as one of its aims," he said. "But that it actually works (and on such a scale as suggested here) is highly doubtful and — based on everything we know about targeted advertising and attempts at persuasion — most likely pales in comparison to very real voter suppression efforts, which include removing polling stations, gerrymandering, or restrictive voting laws."


Simon is broadly skeptical of the so-called "psychographic" microtargeting employed by Cambridge Analytica — i.e. trying to use people's data to make conclusions about their personality and target them accordingly. He believes the media has, in some ways, fallen for these firms' own hype.

"It's [presented as] this almost magical technology which promises so much and which is heavily pushed by the industry in this, which is all these digital campaigning companies and the political data analytics industry. And they make all these big promises," he said.

Dr. Tom Dobber, an expert in political communication at the University of Amsterdam, agreed that the Channel 4 report did not prove the Trump campaign's attempt to influence Black voters had been a success. More generally he does believe microtargeting can be effective — but its efficacy can be blown out of proportion.

"While the effects are reasonably strong, they should not be overestimated. It's not like you can get a staunch Conservative to vote for Labour if you microtarget him long enough. Rather, citizens who are not already set on a party are susceptible and it seems that microtargeting ads is more effective than using untargeted ads," he told Business Insider.

Microtargeting might not be inherently bad

Dobber said the granular nature microtargeting has the potential to be both advantageous and dangerous for democracy.


"There are clear downsides as well as upsides, e.g. sending relevant information to inactive citizens might activate them," he said. "Microtargeting can increase turnout. These are generally good things. But there is clear potential for manipulation and also potential for the amplification of disinformation."

He added: "I suppose it can be used for good when actors operate in good faith, but microtargeting can just as easily be detrimental for society when used in bad faith."

Jamal Watkins, vice president for the NAACP, told Channel 4 that the use of microtargeting to systematically disenfranchise voters was a disturbing part of the documentary's findings.

"We use similar voter file data, but it's to motivate, persuade, encourage folks to participate. We don't actually use the data to say 'who can we deter and keep at home.' That seems fundamentally it's a shift from the notion of democracy," said Watkins.

Part of the problem here is that microtargeting is a new and largely unregulated market, so platforms like Facebook are not beholden to an industry standard for how they decide which ads are are allowed to appear on their platform. Facebook has broadly said it will not fact-check or constrain political speech in ads even if it is demonstrably untrue, although there have been some exceptions.


Tech platforms have also only provided restricted amounts of data to researchers like Simon and Dobber.

"It would be helpful if the large social platforms would give more information about which article is targeted to which groups, on the basis of what data, tailored to which characteristics. Now, social platforms only provide rough estimations on only a few large categories," Dobber said.

Even if it's useless, it's dangerous

To Felix Simon, even if microtargeting is ineffective it poses a potential threat to individuals' privacy because for it to be an economically viable product it requires massive amounts of data, which can in turn be sold for other purposes.

"I think the problem is it's not just used for that [microtargeting]," he said. "Think of a scenario where the personal information they have about you, which could be everything in the US down from the way you vote to where you live, how much you earn, how much you spend on what things, and then that is being used in a context you definitely don't want it to be used, for instance to set the rate of your health insurance," he said.

"That for me is more important, because from what we know there is a lot of shady stuff going on with data being sold without [people's] knowledge, potentially to people we don't want to have our personal data," added Simon.