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  • Mads Fuglsang Hove

Political ads on social media: Do they know it’s not that sophisticated at all?

When I started my PhD, something that pulled me in was the idea that modern campaign technology decides elections. Obama’s famous field operations and Facebook campaign in 2008, the technology behind Cambridge Analytica, and the cinematics of the use of data in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign. However, getting into the literature and conducting studies on my own changed my understanding of how political candidates and parties use data to target voters with advertisements on social media. In this blog post, I address two popular narratives of social media and politics and how my understanding has changed.


Politicians and political parties use very fine-grained data on the voters and very sophisticated targeting techniques, such as we saw in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. While some political parties and campaigns definitely have access to a lot of fine-grained data, particularly in the US, this does not mean that the campaigns know what to do with it or that they use it at all. Instead, research from the US shows that the data most important for campaigns are those already available in public records: party registration, age, location, and race. Not voters’ personality, shopping habits, music preferences, or such. We see similar tendencies in Europe. Campaign technology, such as canvassing apps, is built by paying programmers two crates of beer and 40 pizzas, campaign managers often choose to target voters based on their gut feelings, and most online advertisements include only a few and broad targeting categories such as based on voters location, age or gender.


Facebook knows more about you than you do yourself, just read the story of how the store Target knew a girl was pregnant even before she knew it herself! While the Target story for many reasons is probably just bullsh** it captures a fear I think most of us have felt from time to time. How much do Facebook and other social media platforms know about me? A quick answer to that question can be achieved by checking out your own ‘ad preferences’ according to Facebook and Instagram and see how well you think those align with you (it is also a great game for a party among friends, guessing who-is-who based on ad preferences!). On the research side of things, we definitely could use some more insights, but an estimate is that Facebook infers wrongly in around a third of all the instances using often outdated, irrelevant, and sometimes even misleading information. Not quite there, where social media platforms know more about you than you do yourself.


While the paragraphs above are not meant to say ‘nothing to see here, move along’, I hope they help nuance the discussions of social media and targeted advertisements being a campaign ‘super weapon’. We still need to pay very close attention to how conclusions might change as technology does. And hey, we did not even get a chance to talk about the effects of online advertisements (psst: not nearly as powerful as you would think)!

Mads Fuglsang Hove is a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam. He studies how political elites use microtargeting techniques in online advertisements and what it tell us about social media and politics.


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