How political candidates target you on social media based on your musical tastes, shopping habits and favorite TV shows

And Michael Bennet wants to reach people who love Taylor Swift and Lizzo, while avoiding Jason Aldean’s devoted listeners.

Candidates in some of the higher-profile mid-term contests use Facebook and Instagram ad targeting to target voters based on their musical tastes, sports fandoms, shopping destinations and television habits, a CNN review of data from social media platforms found.

“There are very few things in American culture, whether it’s media organizations or music groups or brands, that don’t have some sort of political association,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who runs the Propaganda Research Lab. of the school. “Political campaigns are using it to their advantage.”

The tactic is made possible through a service that Meta calls “Detailed Targeting”. It allows political campaigns and other advertisers to show their ads to people who share specific interests or to make sure that people interested in certain topics are not shown their ads. Facebook determines whether a user is interested in a topic based on the ads they click on and the pages they interact with, according to the company.
It has long been a routine practice for political campaigns to use this interest-based targeting for Facebook ads. But starting earlier this year, Meta blocked advertisers from targeting users based on their interests in social issues, causes or political figures, saying it was removing options for “topics people might perceive.” as sensitive “. The change eliminated the ability to target ads to people interested in climate change or Second Amendment rights, or former presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump, for example.

In the wake of that change, political strategists say, campaigns have turned to pop culture as a substitute for politics when trying to reach certain groups of voters.

“It requires us to do some more research and figure out who this audience is: what kind of music they’re listening to, what kind of TV shows they’re watching,” said Eric Reif, an executive at the Blue State Democratic political company. This may involve commercial data, survey searches, or data from Spotify or streaming video platforms, he said.

Overall, Democratic candidates in 20 of the most competitive US Senate and Governor contests use Facebook and Instagram ads far more than their opponents, spending more than $ 4 million on platform ads between mid-August and mid-September. compared to about $ 645,000 from Republicans.

In the 20 contests CNN reviewed for that time period, nearly all Democratic campaigns targeted at least a few ads at users with specific interests, while fewer Republicans did. Many candidates post hundreds of ads on Facebook every month, often with different content, and the data doesn’t show which individual ads are targeting which interest groups. This makes it difficult to say how exactly the campaigns are adapting their proposals to different groups of voters.

But many of the more common campaign targets involve brands that are stereotypical substitutes for political trends: several Democrats targeted people interested in NPR and Whole Foods, while NASCAR and Cracker Barrel were popular options for the GOP.

The North Carolina Senate run offers perhaps the sharpest contrast in goals. Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley gave publicity to interested users of PBS and the New York Times Book Review, while her opponent from the GOP Rep. Ted Budd targeted Barstool Sports and the Hallmark Channel. Beasley barred those interested in musician Ted Nugent or podcaster Joe Rogan from seeing some of her announcements, while Budd specifically targeted the announcements at the two men’s fans.

Rogan, a controversial figure who is popular on the right, has drawn more attention from Facebook’s ad-targeted campaigns than any other topic of interest in the period analyzed by CNN. Nine Democratic campaigns have barred those interested in Rogan from receiving some of their announcements.

But in an apparent sign of how he is approaching nontraditional voters, Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, has taken the opposite approach, with his campaign specifically targeting some of his advertisements to Rogan fans. (Beto O’Rourke, the party’s candidate for Texas governor, also ran some ads targeting people interested in Rogan, along with other ads that excluded them.)

Megan Clasen, a partner at Democratic political firm Gambit Strategies, said interest-based targeting more broadly is more effective for candidates who are trying to reach people who already support them.

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“It works very well for a fundraising or list building campaign, where you’re really trying to focus on a smaller audience,” said Clasen, who is working on more mid-term contests. “But when we try to persuade voters, we don’t want to exclude too many people and leave votes on the table.”

The targeting data shows a wide variety of approaches. Rubio, a senior senator from Florida, was one of the most active GOP users of interest-based targeting: More than 85% of the Republican’s ad spend on Facebook was for ads targeted to interested users on a long list of topics, from football. deer hunting student at Southern Living magazine.

Some of the announcements by Bennet, a Democratic senator representing Colorado, were particularly in tune with voter playlists. His campaign targeted people interested in Swift, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and BeyoncĂ©, excluding those interested in country singer Aldean. The Bennet campaign also targeted reggaeton and Latin pop music devotees – as well as more general topics such as “Spanish language”, “Mexican culture” and “Latin American cuisine” – in an apparent offering for Latin voters. (Bennet’s campaign didn’t answer a question about how the announcement addresses the senator’s musical tastes.)

The goals of the other candidates seemed more headache. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign prevented some of her ads from being shown to people interested in Saturday Night Live or former cast member Kate McKinnon. O’Rourke’s ads were aimed at those with a diverse list of interests, ranging from BirdWatching Magazine to One Direction to “drinking water.”

While Meta doesn’t allow applicants to target users based on their race or ethnicity, they can target by gender, age, and location. Several Democratic candidates, including Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan have targeted a significant portion of their advertisements specifically at women.

And Fetterman, who repeatedly hit his opponent, Mehmet Oz, for his former New Jersey residence, used targeting to bar people in the Garden State from receiving a handful of his ads.

Targeting raises data privacy concerns

Facebook’s interest-based targeting isn’t unique – it’s part of a broader trend in the political campaign industry to select ever more precise voter groups. Meta allows campaigns, for example, to upload lists of phone numbers or email addresses of specific people to whom they want to see their ads. And new technologies tailor ads on streaming video and other platforms based on hyperspecific geographic and demographic data, so even neighbors watching the same show may see different political messages.

Experts said the use of this type of targeting raised important data privacy and user consent issues. Woolley, the UT-Austin researcher, said Meta should place even more restrictions on how campaigns can target users.

“People’s data is used without their consent to put it in a box and try to manipulate it not just to buy something, but to vote for a particular person or change their beliefs about a particular issue,” Woolley said. “People have a reasonable expectation of being able to engage in specific interests without being arbitrarily targeted by political campaigns for it.”

An informant holding an envelope.

Users can change Facebook settings to turn off interest-based targeting for individual topics. But most people probably have no idea they’re seeing certain political ads because of their interests in a band or TV show, Woolley noted.

And Damon McCoy, a NYU professor affiliated with the Cybersecurity for Democracy research group, said the campaigns used interest-based targeting “as a proxy to target a specific demographic group that Facebook specifically prohibits targeting.” , such as race or ethnicity – essentially a loophole from the rules of the platform.

Meta spokesperson Ashley Settle said in a statement that the company regularly updates and removes targeting options to improve the advertising experience and reduce the potential for abuse.

“We want to connect people with candidates and the issues they care about, while also giving them control over the ads they see,” Settle said. “That’s why we allow people to hide ads from advertisers or choose to see fewer ads on certain topics, like politics.”

The main reason interest-based targeting is successful for political campaigns is because the US is so politically polarized, with many cultural indicators associated with political trends in a way that may not have been a few decades ago, experts said. . Even some of the strategists who use social media targeting admit they are concerned about what the tactic says about American culture.

“It’s downright alarming that people are so polarized now that you can know a lot about someone’s lifestyle just from whether they’re Democrat or Republican,” Clasen said.

See how advertisers are targeting you

To see what interests advertisers can use to target you, go to the Facebook ad topics settings page (only accessible after you are logged in). You can choose to “see less” ads for specific targets, preventing advertisers from targeting you based on that interest. You can also click “…” in the upper right corner of any Facebook ad and select “Why am I seeing this ad?” for more information on targeting information for individual ads displayed.


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