Facebook, Voter Suppression, and AdTech

3 min read

This piece over on Medium ties together several news stories that have been written about the Trump campaign's use of Dark Posts on Facebook to supress the vote among Clinton voters. There are some great details in the post, and you should read it in full. A few details stood out that bear highlighting.

The Trump campaign used pre-built tools within Facebook, and data on users exposed by Facebook. In other words, Facebook already had the tools to support vote suppression built into their system. I don't think that this was done intentionally by Facebook, but it really hammers home the point: all tech has unintended consequences. When we look at tech, we need to evaluate the fringes, and ask hard questions about what the tech can break, because we humans are great at breaking things. But in this case, the mechanisms for manipulating behavior via ads worked very well for suppressing turnout in the electorate. Predictive analytics lost, but mood manipulation via big data worked well.

The Trump campaign used data from within Facebook to suppress turnout among Clinton supporters. This means that every progressive organization on any issue that has been organizing on Facebook helped provide the Trump campaign with a list of potential voters to receive Dark Posts to suppress their vote (and in brief, Dark Posts are private ads microtargeted to specific demographics. On some days, the Trump campaign delivered 100,000 different ads, tailored by demographic data). But the message to progressive orgs should be clear: when you organize on Facebook, you expose your organization and your stakeholders to profiling and targeted political ads by your opponenents. Use better tools.

Finally, according to the piece, the Trump campaign created a privately owned database that contains between 4000-5000 data points on the online and offline behavior (ie, where we go, our credit card purchases, etc) of approximately 220 million Americans. This database was compiled from multiple sources, including Cambridge Analytica, Experian PLC, Datalogix, Epsilon, and Acxiom Corporation. It's privately held, and it's unclear what restrictions, if any, exist around who can access this database. Unlike data collected on us by the NSA, where there are levels of bureaucracy tracking access, the dataset compiled during the campaign is a much more openly accessible resource to people within the Trump campaign.

Also worth noting: Facebook explicitly offers advertising services that tie online and offline behaviors. If you look at the list opf partners, you will see some of the same players that determine our credit scores.