Microtargeted social media ads have redefined modern campaigning, taking the “targeted approach” to a whole new level. 

Last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal made waves — and for good reason. Through media interviews and court hearings, whistleblower and former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie pulled the curtain back on some of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign tactics. Needless to say, they weren’t pretty. 

According to the reports, Cambridge Analytica (the firm hired by Trump’s digital team) unjustly leveraged 87 million Facebook users’ personal data to create highly-targeted Facebook ads tailored around this information. These ads exploited users’ fears, vulnerabilities, and personal allegiances and were dubbed a form of “psychological warfare” by Wylie. Many even credit them for pushing Trump across the presidential finish line. 

But according to Evan Greer, campaign director for the Internet activism group, Fight for the Future, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was, “Just the tip of the iceberg, and this problem doesn’t begin and end with Facebook.” Greer is referring to the growth of microtargeting, a marketing strategy that leverages individuals’ personal data — their unique demographics characteristics, where they shop, who they’re friends with, and much, much more — to create highly-targeted groups for content delivery. 

As microtargeting gains in popularity and sophistication, many are beginning to wonder — what are the repercussions? And is microtargeting an ethical political tactic?

Microtargeting in the Political Arena

The Trump campaign isn’t the only one to put the power of microtargeting into play. In fact, countless other politicians have turned to the tool to sway voters and secure results over the last several decades. But while microtargeting itself isn’t new, how it is executed has evolved dramatically thanks to the digital era.  

Historically, the only personal data available was that found in census resources and voter registration files. But now, politicians’ digital strategists can harvest troves of personal data from a variety of web-based channels. Armed with precise insights on internet users’ behaviors, marketers can create a range of hyper-customized social media ads, each with their own unique target audience. So while some ads are designed for “suburban moms who support the Second Amendment” others may focus on “fathers aged 35-44 in Texas who frequent gun enthusiast websites.” 

Whether or not Leave.EU, a Brexit campaign heavily influenced by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), conducted microtargeting with support from Cambridge Analytica is a case up for debate. 

In an interview with Today, Brittany Kaiser, a former director of Cambridge Analytica, said, “The proposal for how we were going to assist the Leave.EU campaign was to undertake the same type of research that we were undertaking in the United States. That’s psychographic research: understanding people’s personality profiles in order to develop different clusters of individuals – how they saw the world, why they would or wouldn’t be interested in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and therefore crafting many different communications campaigns.”

While Kaiser explains that the majority of the campaign conducted by Cambridge Analytica for Leave.EU and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) was a “pitch and proposal,” she believes there’s still cause for concern. “As you can see with the evidence… chargeable work was completed for UKIP and Leave.EU, and I have strong reasons to believe that those datasets…processed by Cambridge Analytica as part of a Phase 1 payable work engagement… were later used by the Leave.EU campaign without Cambridge Analytica’s further assistance,” writes Kaiser in a letter to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chair, Damian Collins, summarizing the several email submissions highlighting exchanges between Cambridge Analytica and UKIP. 

The Psychology Behind Microtargeting and Why it Works

It’s becoming increasingly clear that microtargeting is a highly effective strategy — but exactly why is that? Back in 2013, researchers at Cambridge University developed a model for tracking the items (movies, artists, articles, photos, etc.) that Facebook users “like” to form an accurate depiction of each user’s “Big Five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

“For example,” the researchers write in their paper, “users who liked the ‘Hello Kitty’ brand tended to be high on ‘Openness’ and low on ‘Conscientiousness,’ ‘Agreeableness,’ and ‘Emotional Stability [neuroticism].” 

The varying degree to which an individual represents each of these traits can be evaluated to predict a number of factors about them, including their race, religion, political stance and beyond. This is the exact model used by Aleksandr Kogan, the co-director of the company responsible for selling user data to Cambridge Analytica. 

For many digital strategists, the data garnered from these models serves as a gold mine of possibility

“Segmenting, targeting, and positioning are key to successful marketing, and microtargeting provides marketers with incredible advancements for each of these steps,” said Rob Smith, a professor of marketing at the Ohio State University Fisher School of Business and co-author of a study on microtargeted advertising. “If a political party can focus their marketing budget on undecided voters, or specifically to an undecided voter that may be leaning a certain direction but not planning to vote, that is clearly a lucrative segment to target,” he says. 

Others aren’t convinced, pointing to recent studies that claim political advertising is an entirely ineffective tool in persuading voters’ minds. With studies supporting both sides, the debate continues. 

The Big Question: Is Microtargeting Ethical?

The role that the media should play in the political realm is an age-old debate. In their summary of Princeton professor Stanley Kelley Jr.’s 1963 essay, Elections and the Mass Media, the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom writes: “Media set the agenda by prioritising issues and selectively giving time and space for candidates; they frame their reporting within a certain field of meaning…and they sell time and space for political advertising within the existing legal framework.”

Microtargeting serves as an ideal example of how media is leveraged to influence voters in the modern era. Today’s ethical concerns center around microtargeting as the obstruction of the democratic process. That’s because microtargeted ads are also “dark ads,” meaning only select individuals see them — they aren’t posted for the general public. As a result, not everyone is exposed to the same information, creating a distorted picture of the landscape in question. 

“The way to have a robust democracy is for people to hear all these ideas and make decisions and discuss,” said Anne Ravel, former member of the Federal Election Commission. “With microtargeting, that is not happening.”

Privacy concerns are also top of mind for many, as regulators attempt to home in on where and how data is sourced. The biggest question — have users granted permission to their personal data, and do they know how it’s being used? In the case of Cambridge Analytica, this question propelled the entire debate. When users check a box on a site’s legal terms and conditions, do they sign away the use of their personal data to serve any purpose? Are the creators and leaders of social media organizations responsible for regulating the use of user data? These questions are still being hotly debated.

Navigating the Media in the New Election Season

As we move into another election season, the debate surrounding the use of consumer data to influence political outcomes will rage on. And while calls for legislation to protect consumer privacy are already in motion, they’re sure to be slow to go into effect. 

During this time, it’s important for all citizens to educate themselves about the media they consume. That means vetting news outlets and articles that appear in their social media news feeds, conducting external research, diligently fact-checking sources, and even taking precautionary measures like clearing their web browser’s cookie cache to limit site tracking. 

Perhaps most importantly, we must all do our best to remember this: advertisements are advertisements, plain and simple. Political advertisements, whether on social media or TV, are no different than the retail ads we consume year-round. They aim to sell us something — a message, a dream — and invoke our brand loyalty. It’s our responsibility as voters to treat them with discretion and do our homework. That way, when it comes time to hit the polls, we can cast the most informed ballot possible.