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Facebook shutting down a key path Obama used to reach voters

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Mark Zuckerberg (C), founder and CEO of Facebook, talks to his colleagues as Indonesia's president-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo talks to a reporter at Jakarta city hall, October 13, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta (INDONESIA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY BUSINESS TELECOMS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s reelection campaign pioneered a pathway for political campaigns to reach voters through Facebook when it released an app that helped supporters target their friends with Obama-related material.

But as the 2016 presidential campaign approaches, Facebook is rolling out a change that will prevent future campaigns from doing this, closing the door on one of the most sophisticated social targeting efforts ever undertaken.

“It’s a fairly significant shift,” said Teddy Goff, who was Obama’s digital director in 2012, and oversaw the effort that helped the Obama campaign gain a Facebook following of 45 million users that year. Goff’s team used Facebook and other tools to register more than a million voters online and to raise $690 million online in 2011 and 2012.

“The thing we did that will be most affected — by which I mean rendered impossible — by the changes they're making is the targeted sharing tool,” Goff said.

More than 1 million Obama supporters in 2012 installed the campaign’s Facebook app. These supporters were given the option to share their friend list with the Obama campaign. Goff said most of the app users did so. And when they did, Goff’s team would then “run those friend lists up against the voter file, and make targeted suggestions as to who [supporters] should be sharing stuff with.”

This was a powerful new form of voter outreach. The Obama campaign had concluded that many voters — especially younger Americans — viewed TV and other forms of advertising from the campaign with suspicion and skepticism. But they were still open to messages that came from friends and acquaintances.

The key to getting persuasive messages in front of persuadable voters going forward, the campaign decided, was to have them come from people they knew.

“It's extremely powerful for a campaign to be able to say to [a user], ‘Hey, here are your persuadable friends, ranked in order of where they live: Ohio first, Virginia second, et cetera. Go share this video directly with them,'” Goff said.

The Romney campaign also started doing this, but only in October, a month before the presidential election.

Then in the spring of 2014, Facebook — responding to growing privacy concerns — cracked down on how much information third-party applications could gain about those who installed the apps.

“We've heard from people that they're often surprised when a friend shares their information with an app,” wrote Facebook engineering manager Jeffrey Spehar in a blog post. “So we've updated Facebook Login so that each person decides what information they want to share about themselves, including their friend list.”

Today, when Facebook users choose to share their friend list with an app, only those friends who also use the app become visible, Facebook spokeswoman Tera Randall told Yahoo News.

The changes went into effect for new apps on April 30, and existing apps were given a year before the change applied to them. (In technical terms, what Facebook is doing is changing its Graph application programming interface, or API, as well as the terms of service for app developers.)

What this means in practice is that a group like Ready for Hillary, the grass-roots network of supporters for a Clinton presidential run, has been able to use targeted sharing over the past year. That means it has the Facebook friend lists of all the people who’ve installed Ready for Hillary’s app on the social network.

But when the API and terms-of-service changes become permanent for all apps, Ready for Hillary — as well as any campaign that has bought its voter information — won’t be able to keep up to date with its supporters’ most recent lists of friends, and will learn nothing about the Facebook friends of new supporters. Facebook’s change becomes permanent on April 30, 2015.

Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, will not get the chance to use the tool at all.

Aside from a brief article over the summer in Campaigns & Elections and one more recently in AdAge, the political press has not taken notice of the change.

Already, though, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has decided not to put time and resources into using Facebook’s targeted sharing tools.

“We could have continued to use it just for this cycle, and it could have been useful to some degree, but for me it was a question of resource prioritization,” said a senior NRSC official. “I wanted to focus on getting the fundamentals right first, then building up the chain of sophistication.”

The NRSC official said that when the committee did use targeted sharing in the Massachusetts special election in June 2013, it showed results, but “we just didn't see the engagement numbers we needed to see to indicate that it was going to be transformative this [past] cycle.”

“Plus, the API and News Feed changes have been so frequent over the past several years that we somewhat doubted the assurances that it would still work on [Election Day],” the NRSC official said. “Even if so, anything we built would have to be scrapped after the cycle; it couldn't serve as the foundation for future cycles, like email list development.”

But the quest to reach voters through their friends will continue to be a highly competitive space in politics.

“I’m not convinced there aren’t going to be ways [to work around the Facebook change]. But nobody has found a way yet,” Goff said.

Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP VAN, the top software tool for Democratic campaigns, said that there are still ways to “track relationships in non-Facebook ways.”

NGP VAN’s interface, which taps into voter databases, is used by virtually every Democratic campaign up and down the ballot. So the level of volunteer use around the country is high. And NGP VAN has also created an Action Center tool that has been mapping relationship data among Democratic volunteers and Ready for Hillary supporters.

“[Ready for Hillary] said, ‘Hey supporters, go to the Action Center and share with your friends that they should come and sign up for a free Ready for Hillary bumper sticker,'” Trevelyan said. “Let’s say I clicked on your link and went and asked for a bumper sticker. My record would show in the VAN database that I was recruited by you and you recruited me. There’s a whole level of observed activity.”

“There is an element of our tool currently that uses that Facebook API, but it’s not the only way or even the predominant way that we are mapping relationships,” Trevelyan said.

But as the NRSC official put it, “It seems that the days of getting 1 million users to scrape all of America's social data are gone.”