Russia’s Facebook ads show how Internet microtargeting can be weaponized
Have you taken a close look at your ads lately?
Washington and Silicon Valley have been shocked by each new discovery recently of how Russian operatives bought ads on Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks during the 2016 campaign. Kremlin-linked troll farms bought cheap advertising with a very wide reach, possibly getting their messages in front of millions of American voters.
Such ads are our clearest example yet of the ways that personalization and microtargeting — basics in the business of data on the Internet — can be weaponized.
And it’s not just ads we need to worry about — it’s all forms of personalization. In a world where more and more interfaces are personalized, we need better means to exert our preferences and protect against misuse. Russian interference using standard business practices such as buying ads on Facebook puts into stark relief the lack of oversight of the potential misuses and abuses of technologies that filter our daily lives.
Ads are the best signal we have to show us how our personal data is being used. We’ve begun to see examples of how targeted advertising online has moved from the commercial into the political sphere. ProPublica has reported that Facebook made it possible for advertisers to target racial proxies buying ads for categories like “ethnic affinity groups” and “jew haters.” An Australian Facebook ad team presented leaked research suggesting how emotionally unstable teens might be targeted. The Trump campaign deployed “Super Predator” dark posts targeting black voters to suppress turnout just before the election. But Russia’s digital tactics demonstrate just how far exploitative microtargeting can go.
Today there is no neutral interface, no unfiltered feed. From music recommendations to algorithmically generated news feeds, even search results and front pages of news sources, our digital lives are tailored to match our unique behavioral patterns. We can’t toggle between a neutral experience and a personalized one.
Most of what feeds into microtargeting is based on assumptions — algorithms observe past behavior, process it through a prioritization system and spit back out more of what you will like, or what will get you to spend more of your money or time. At best, these systems anticipate our needs and interests and tailor our experience accordingly. At worst, though, they are deployed to take advantage of us.
It’s hard to find the fuzzy line between appropriate uses and misuses of the technology. What’s the difference between a retargeted ad selling shoes vs. one discussing protection of the Second Amendment?
This is about more than just annoying ads. It’s about our agency to understand and control the interfaces with which we live every day.
Facebook has responded with an action plan to address election integrity issues. Ads targeted to various users will be available on one page for users to compare to what others are seeing. Facebook will also finally make political advertising disclosures more transparent, as regulation of TV and other media already requires. But these efforts do not address the wider influence of microtargeting and personalization on this and other platforms.
Interfaces dealing in user data need to be held accountable to their users. Beyond the ones Facebook has proposed, there are a number of solutions that platforms and regulators can pursue.