Political Campaigning, Microtargeting, and the Right to Information

Written by Cristina Voinea 

 

2024 is poised to be a challenging year, partly because of the important elections looming on the horizon – from the United States and various European countries to Russia (though, let us admit, surprises there might be few). As more than half of the global population is on social media, much of political communication and campaigning moved online. Enter the realm of online political microtargeting, a game-changer fueled by data and analytics innovations that changed the face of political campaigning.  

Microtargeting, a form of online targeted advertisement, relies on the collection, aggregation, and processing of both online and offline personal data to target individuals with the messages they will respond or react to. In political campaigns, microtargeting on social media platforms is used for delivering personalized political ads, attuned to the interests, beliefs, and concerns of potential voters. The objectives of political microtargeting are diverse, as it can be used to inform and mobilize or to confuse, scare, and demobilize. How does political microtargeting change the landscape of political campaigns? I argue that this practice is detrimental to democratic processes because it restricts voters’ right to information. (Privacy infringements are an additional reason but will not be the focus of this post). 

 

What is online political microtargeting?

 

Political microtargeting on social media platforms entails three steps: 

  • Data Collection and Aggregation: Traditionally, political parties gathered voter information from public sources and through canvassing. Nowadays, data is acquired from multiple sources, both online and offline, and is merged in exhaustive databases, which include data volunteered by users (through the completion of various online quizzes or tests), demographic data (data about location, and age, gender, race, income, education etc.) and consumer and lifestyle data (search activity, sites visited, purchases made, spending habits, subscriptions) etc. Political parties typically obtain this data from database marketing companies like Acxiom, Claritas, or Experian. These companies conduct extensive surveillance of Internet users’ behaviors across multiple devices using cookies or web beacons. The acquired data is then merged with the vast personal information held by platforms like Google and Facebook, which monitor users’ activities both within and outside their ecosystems. 
  • Profiling: The next step is ‘profiling,’ wherein statistical methods and algorithmic techniques are applied to the databases described above to create a comprehensive depiction of users’ attributes and characteristics, meant to enable the prediction of future behaviors. Marketers employ various profiling and targeting methods, such as demographic segmentation and psychographics targeting. The latter is based on data referring to the cognitive factors motivating behavior, such as moral and political values, prejudices, interests, emotional triggers, lifestyle choices and so on (this was extensively used by Cambridge Analytica). These methods, often used simultaneously, contribute to the creation of highly detailed individual profiles. Targeting techniques, like cross-device targeting and data onboarding, play a crucial role in linking different data points and merging offline and online information to draw granular inferences about users’ behavior. 
  • Creation and Testing of Ads: With individual voter profiles in hand, the next phase involves creating and testing specific ads. Many social media platforms offer tools for testing ad success before payment. The widely used ‘A/B testing’ allows advertisers to evaluate the effectiveness of ads for specific targeted audiences. During Trump’s 2016 campaign, for instance, his team ran a staggering fifty thousand versions of the main campaign ads.i These versions often featured imperceptible changes like background color or font size. AI tools captured user feedback, enabling the campaign team to determine which ads resonated better with the audience. 

 

Political speech in political campaigns 

 

Political microtargeting is not new; political parties used it first before social media platforms.ii What changed is that microtargeting now relies on computational enhancement, which allows it to be scaled efficiently. It enables reaching a large audience while concurrently delivering personalized messages to individuals cost-effectively. As microtargeting provides quantifiable feedback on the success of targeted ads and grants advertisers control over information dissemination, social media platforms have transformed into a one-stop shop for political campaigning and advertisement. But are political ads just like any other type of ads? 

Political advertisement is a form of political speech which is protected for obvious reasons. At the same time, political advertisements and campaigning are subject to various forms of regulation, especially during election periods. States impose limits on campaign spending, airtime allocation, transparency of contributions, and silence periods. These regulations are meant to foster the fairness of elections, by reducing the potential negative impact of alliances between politicians and the media, which could lead to the distortion of facts, the exclusion of diverse voices in the media, or to attempts to wield influence over public opinion. These rules seek to facilitate opinion formation by providing citizens access to diverse political information while allowing politicians to express themselves. 

However, online campaign regulations are less effective compared to offline ones. On social media platforms, advertisement restrictions and transparency obligations are challenging to enforce, as political actors can engage third parties, like private individuals or specialized marketing firms, to distribute and target ‘masked’ political advertisements. Despite platform rules (e.g., Facebook’s requirement to label political ads and disclose funding sources), political actors exploit loopholes. Joe Biden and Donald Trump, for instance, enlisted Instagram influencers during past elections to enhance their online presence without marking posts as political ads.iii Violations of ‘silence periods’ are practically the norm in online political advertisements. On top of that, disintermediation of political campaigning makes it very difficult to fact-check online political ads. Should this lack of oversight be a cause for concern? 

 

Freedoms in tension  

 

While political microtargeting empowers politicians to express their views more effectively, when unregulated it restricts non-targeted individuals’ right to access the information in political targeted messages. The right to information is granted (only in democracies) whenever organizations’ lack of transparency can affect citizens’ fundamental interests.iv Thus, information rights serve to protect other fundamental rights, including the right to physical or economic security, as well as the right to political enfranchisement and participation. To illustrate, consider a scenario where a government withholds information from citizens about the contamination of tap water with toxic substances. In this case, information becomes indispensable for ensuring the physical safety of the population and citizens have a right to it.  

Disclosure requirements are imposed not only on public actors, but also on private ones. For instance, companies are obligated to disclose information regarding the potential harm their products may pose to users, or any dangers associated with defective products. Similarly, employers are required to disclose to employees the hazardous or toxic nature of products or machinery used in production processes. Also, professionals such as psychologists or doctors may be obliged to inform authorities about the potential danger of violence one person poses to another. Disclosure requirements are the obligations that flow from citizens’ or employees’ right to information.

Fundamental interests extend beyond personal safety and integrity to encompass political participation (obviously, this only holds in democracies). In this context, the right to information is viewed as an extension of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. Consider, for instance, the fundamental freedom to criticize the government. This right loses its substance without access to relevant information – details about implemented policies, their efficacy, and more. The overarching idea is that citizens and civil groups require relevant information to actively engage in public debates on matters of public interest and to introduce new issues to the public agenda.  

Likewise, the freedom to vote, a form of expressing one’s opinions, would be hollow without access to information. The question of whether there exists a general duty to vote and whether there is an obligation to inform ourselves before casting our votes falls outside the scope of this blog post (but if interested in these issues, check out Joseph Moore’s contribution). My focus is on how political microtargeting impacts the fundamental interests of citizens who are willing to vote, regardless of their motivations (which could be conceptions of the common good or individual well-being). Access to information, particularly concerning the political agendas of candidates, their stances on various issues, and how they present themselves, which are now mostly expressed in online political ads, is essential as it allows citizens to make informed choices among candidates. Without access to this information, voting would become a gamble. Consequently, information about political campaigns should ideally be public and accessible to everyone, although whether individuals have a duty to access this information is a separate consideration.  

The delivery of messages through microtargeted ads exclusively to those directly targeted transforms political campaigning from a public affair to a private one. This is especially the case for digital natives who take social media platforms to be a one-stop shop for informing themselves and who do not follow other information channels, such as TV programs, radio, or newspapers. While political microtargeting enables politicians to exercise their freedom of expression, it indirectly constrains the right of non-targeted individuals to information regarding the positions, beliefs, messages, and attitudes of potential or future representatives expressed through online political ads. The controlled selection of content by marketing consultants and political content creators imposes structural limits on what users can learn and engage with, amounting to a restriction on the free flow of information necessary for political deliberation and a robust political public sphere. This differs from situations where individuals choose not to engage with certain media that do not align with their political views, as in the latter case, they are aware that the information is available and can be accessed later if needed.  

There are other concerns connected to political microtargeting. For example, the lack of public visibility of targeted ads prevents effective monitoring and scrutiny. This raises concerns about the potential spread of misinformation among voters on an unprecedented scale, without the possibility of oversight or rebuttal of politicians’ claims. Additionally, political microtargeting opens the door for sustaining contradictory claims to different segments of the electorate and exploiting users’ biases and prejudices without exposure to countervailing viewpoints. Political microtargeting raises doubts about its alignment with the public interest, which is inherently communicative and thrives when ideas and opinions can circulate, be challenged, refined, and eventually contribute to the development of public policies, legislation, and social norms.  

I do not want to exaggerate the impact of political microtargeting, since individuals do not exist within impenetrable online ‘echo chambers.’ They have access to alternative sources of political information, including television, newspapers, radio, and interpersonal discussions. Additionally, the influence of a communication and information medium on individuals varies based on diverse social and political factors, such as an individual’s education level and the political culture they are immersed in. However, considering the prevailing trend towards digital information channels that offer highly personalized content, coupled with the challenges of enforcing campaign regulations in the online sphere, emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of the potential impacts of political microtargeting on individuals and democratic processes.  

 

 

 

[i] Martin Moore, Democracy Hacked: How Technology Is Destabilising Global Politics (Oneworld Publications, 2018), p. 131. 

[ii] For a history of microtargeting in the US, see Luke Dietrik Bunting, “The Evolution of American Microtargeting: An Examination of Modern Electoral Messaging,” 2014, https://digitalcommons.butler.edu/ugtheses/217/. 

[iii] “Social Media Influencers and the 2020 U.S. Election: Paying ‘Regular People’ for Digital Campaign Communication – Center for Media Engagement – Center for Media Engagement,” December 13, 2023, https://mediaengagement.org/research/social-media-influencers-and-the-2020-election/. 

[iv] Alasdair Roberts, “Structural Pluralism and the Right to Information,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 51, no. 3 (2001): 243–71, https://doi.org/10.2307/825940. 

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9 Responses to Political Campaigning, Microtargeting, and the Right to Information

  • Paul Van Pelt says:

    All of which suggests the Interests, Motives, and Preferences (IMPs) of those (many) who would have it that we don’t need to think for ourselves…we must think the way each splinter group wants us to think. This is representative of a myriad of utilitarian views, each preaching its’ own version of the *greatest good, etc…*. D’utrement(spelling?), some unspecified number of Orwellian views on what is best for the time and place, when/wherever That may be. I’d call this a variation on the Mother Hen syndrome, except for the fact of oversimplification. I think the diversity emerges from a free society which encourages free speech. Yet, the contradiction rears its’ ugly head: virtually nothing IS free. So, we are back to square one, and never really got beyond that beginning. Finally, everyone lies and that generates no more than a nod and a wink: caveat emptor. Indeed. Barnum had it right all along.

  • Pavel Novak says:

    Well…. Politician is not yoghurt….

    Therefore we cannot automatically apply business marketing regulations on political marketing.

    There is nothing like objective or unbiased opinion. Always there is some interest in which the politician or also media talk to us.

    That is why the freedom of speech should always be prefered.

    It is our task to evaluate the information in public space.

    And all people tend to search information that correspond to their point of view. No law, no regulation can change this.

    If I believe that the planet is flat it is my fault. It has nothing in common with rights, regulations or public power.

    We cannot let the government to “form” our opinions. Even if the intention is good.

  • Paul Van Pelt says:

    I suppose it is fair to say potential voters have interests, beliefs and concerns. The same is true for people who don’t vote or do so sporadically. Slugs, who are not responsively conscious of much of anything, may swim in shallower water and probably have interests but in place of beliefs and concerns, they pursue motive and preference. People I don’t know bombard me with advice on such matters, offering names of others I might like to know;groups I might like to follow, etc. MY interest in such advice and suggestions is virtually nil. I choose associates and friends, not the other way ‘ round. This counts me as hermit class. There seems to be something in social media for everyone, from the crass and lewd, to further down the turtle stack. I keep thinking the pornographers and sex addicts will tire of sending me email come ons. But they apparently have nothing better to do, other than pursuit of a lurid hobby. Some who pursue such depravities commit suicide over their perversions. Others merely disappear from public life and admiration. I don’t have many regrets over chosen friends. Fewer is better, from my point of view. Comme ci, Comme ca.

  • Paul Van Pelt says:

    Excellent point, Pavel. You have my support. And, I like yogurt. Even as a base for salad dressing. But not to dress word salad…and I did not mean YOU have done that. Thanks!

  • Ian says:

    It seems that the rebalancing of privacy over more recent years to protect the freedoms and free speech of those who would wish to use hidden or non-obvious influencing techniques to their own benefit, but the probable detriment of broader populations, may be becoming more visible. Perhaps all political issues raised for political purposes should only be communicated in a clear and transparent way and that those less conspicuous methods should be given an appropriate level of public reprobation, reflective of the damage often done. The trouble with that is the current widely perceived difficulties in achieving such outcomes in a just way without generally compromising the way politics has historically worked over many centuries. Perhaps AI could be used to assist with identifying such socially damaging methods/material and its true source; By socially damaging I mean damaging to any form of what may be considered as broadly inclusive social structures. This limitation in definition is made to reflect the support given to such concealed/obscured methods by more authoritarian approaches where concealed methods may be perceive as a way of rather softly implementing otherwise unpopular aspects of an ideology. Indeed the popularity of more authoritarian approaches could well have been affected by this factor as the privacy rebalancing and technical abilities have progressed.

  • Paul Van Pelt says:

    Insofar as people wade into the piranha pond of word salad, via their own free will…yes, we do have that…no one can give help for it. There are one or two philosophy journals who claim disdain for, uh, jargon. Yet, these avowed hold-outs fall into the salad bowl with everyone else, when fitting in with the terminology wars. I don’t know what microtargeting is. Not am I at all certain about so-called microaggression…picked that up on another blog…best I could determine was microaggression is a sidelong glance, or refusal to acknowledge a question or answer. Technically speaking, then, the ancient retort of *no comment* to a query, is microaggression. Glad we got that straight. Macroaggression is relatively easy to assess. Wars… take your pick… are macroaggressice activities. Anyway, my view of phenomena like microaggression emerges from political correctness. Freedom of association; speech; religion and so on, took a hit when the *politically correct* thing became THE correct thing. Look. I have lived through this nonsense, in two countries. The lucid went to ludicrous in fewer than thirty years. JM asks if the world is getting better. No. Not now…

  • Paul Van Pelt says:

    Or, was that Chicken Little? I get so many things
    confused now…Connections , though necessary, are a veces, confusing—complexity aligns with contextual reality and, of course interests, motives and preferences. Davidson started this. Blame a dead man—if you dare. Nah, never mind. The notion of propositional attitude was lurking, long before Donald Davidson. It was just called something else. Connections are eternal. Some newer thinker just wants his/her moment. Yep.

  • Ian says:

    Firstly as a small diversion (and cross post), microagression within authoritarian social groups like the UK military is a punishable offence. Similar things, like microtargeting become very easily (and internally perceived as quite necessarily) embedded within authoritarian systems, and seem to extend out of constraining people to always think and do the right/same thing.

    In an interview on Sky News aired today, the artist I Wei Wei observed he perceived parallels between Mao’s China during the purge (think that is a pc term but it is accurately descriptive) and current ongoing developments in the West. The media interviewer afterwards did make light of the generic issue raised, rather becoming hooked up on softer interpretations, including a singularly personal one (of I Wei Wei’s observation), which could ameliorate any more difficult questions raised within his own worldview. Given that the artists observations were directly challenging to a national issue which is politically perceived to require a consistently disciplined approach towards holding a particular perspective there was much mileage in the artists observations, but they would not be too popular or would cause significant resistance from some quarters and possibly damage to certain interests. So his point was accurate and well made (although he did not mention the affects of visual surveillance mechanisms), censorship exists, and is becoming increasingly exercised within Western societies creating some untouchable matters. What he did not observe, was there are certain artistic ways of making artistic observations without openly challenging censored issues. This becomes visible above and when comparing something like Banksy’ directly challenging (and locally tailored) work, with Cervantes hidden criticism of the Spanish Armada in Don Quixote (when read whilst maintaining awareness of real geographical/environmental data). It would seem that the tensions in western societies are creating a directing influence towards Cervantes type criticism rather than open ones. (Think methods of anonymous criticism in authoritarian regimes before discarding wider issues arising from that thought; and apply I Wei Wei’s observation.)

    The point being made is that it has to be recognised that different ways of controlling social groups exist, and the methods of achieving that control may vary, depending upon the structure and context of the social group. But is it really necessary to enforce only one of those various methods across all existing/potential social groups? Perceiving and holding that whole collection of social groups in mind leads on to other spheres but creates many attacks on such perceptions, simply because a broader worldview requires accepting matters which are wrong/anathema to a great many included worldviews, are they wrong, or merely reacting defensively?

    And that directly returns to the article itself, freely available information allows those reacting defensively the opportunity to see broader perspectives without denying (or including) their own. The collection of personal information facilitating microtargetting becomes a real problem because of how it increasingly promotes a more authoritarian approach in attempting to restrict/divert potential/developing views. The article states that, but somewhat, to my mind, fudges the right to information with the free availability of information; obligations to disclose with openly publishing. That social group defensiveness becoming visible again in the mere interpretation of phrases. (Which political correctness appeared to be originally meant for, and sometimes still does challenge.)

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