Facebook said on Wednesday it will temporarily suspend political advertising after Election Day, November 3. It’s the latest in a series of moves by the social media giant to limit the manipulation that marked the 2016 presidential campaign. But researchers and political strategists say campaigns can still use Facebook to target the voters that they do—and don’t—want to vote.
The UK’s Channel 4 last month reported that President Trump’s 2016 campaign used data from Cambridge Analytica and other sources to identify Black voters who they thought could be dissuaded from voting. To do that, the campaign identified groups of users as Black, as voters, as living in swing states, and, finally, as persuadable. They flooded their Facebook feeds with negative ads. Facebook’s complex advertising system is able to synthesize data from different sources to identify these traits in users and direct targeted messages at them.
“I’ve been in the political advertising space now for almost 10 years,” says Andy Amsler, director of paid media for the marketing firm Precision Strategies. “When I entered it, I could take a list out of the voter file that I’ve created of any community of voters I wanted, put it into Facebook, and target it. And I could do the exact same thing today.”
Voter data is public in many states. Campaigns can combine the data with other information Facebook has on its users: their shopping habits and favorite activities, for example. Together, the data may offer a sense of someone’s political leanings, their race, or even whether they can be persuaded to vote for a specific candidate. Or, as was the case in 2016, not to vote at all. Political campaigns use data much as marketers peddle soap or beer.
“It’s about using a combination of data points that allow campaigns to make pretty smart assumptions,” says Jenna Golden, the former head of political ad sales for Twitter. “If someone joined a Facebook group that cares about the environment, do I know for sure that that person’s an environmentalist? No. But it’s a sign.” (On Friday, Twitter announced steps to limit the spread of information, and misinformation, on its service ahead of the election.)
Amsler says Facebook’s changes since 2016 have improved transparency. Campaigns must verify themselves before being granted access to the political advertising platform. They must have a physical address in the US, so the company can mail them a postcard for verification. Facebook also requires Social Security numbers for key players and an ID from the Federal Election Commission to confirm a connection to a registered campaign.
But once organizations are granted access to the advertising platform, the restrictions around targeting are easy to bypass. Earlier this year, Facebook eliminated race as an option for advertising. It hasn’t stopped much.
Campaigns “aren’t checking a box that allows them to only reach a particular race,” Golden explains. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re not sophisticated enough to figure out how to target that population on that platform.”
Golden says it’s still possible to use proxies to target ethnic groups. Consider the tactic of using heavy Telemundo watchers to target Latinx communities. There’s an entire ecosystem of companies that compile, then sell, ready-made lists of audiences.
Campaigns upload voter lists to Facebook, then combine them with other data sources to identify similar users on the social network. This is done by algorithm. Campaigns are only told what percent of any uploaded file matches with users, though the “matched” users are never identified.
For example, a campaign may want to send ads to Hispanic mothers who are registered Republicans. Voter files provide information on party affiliation, while Facebook would know that a user is, say, shopping for strollers or “liked” the page of their local elementary school. Smart TV data showing the person watches Telemundo could indicate they’re a Spanish speaker and, by proxy, Latinx. By combining these signals, it’s possible to find and target the people.
“They’ve removed specific multicultural targeting, but you can still target based on whether someone’s keyboard is set to Spanish,” Amsler offers as an example. Facebook’s just as likely to know a user is a parent of a young child, he says. From there, third-party data providers have lists of users who are Telemundo viewers or live in a predominantly Latinx community. “You cobble together a quick set of interests and you’ve got your audience, and they’re very easy to market to at hat point.”