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Why ‘micro-targeting’ is a problem for elections

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

With just 12 days until the Iowa caucuses, concerns surrounding disinformation and meddling are only escalating ahead of the U.S. elections in November.

In addition to the threat of hacking and interference from foreign actors, tech giants like Facebook (FB) micro-target users, serving up hyper-specific ads that mirror an individual’s beliefs, interests, and opinions.

Ellen Weintraub, commissioner and three-time chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), has been a vocal opponent of this practice, which is now a normalized business model in the tech world.

“[These companies] are targeting ads in very small slices to people, making sure [they’re] almost custom-designed for you. At the same time, anyone who disagrees is likely to be getting a different ad set. They’re not even going to see the ad. There’s no opportunity for what we call counterspeech, for someone to come out and say, ‘wait a minute, that’s not right. there’s another take on that’ or ‘there’s other information that you really ought to hear in order to make an informed judgment,’” she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s The Final Round Tuesday.

“If the platform circulated these ads to a broader base of viewers and listeners, those other folks would be able to critique the ads and there would be a fairer exchange and a more robust debate of our politics,” added Weintraub.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Ellen L. Weintraub, Chair, U.S. Federal Election Commission, speaks at a panel discussion on disinformation and the 2020 campaign co-hosted by PEN America; Ellen L. Weintraub, Chair, U.S. Federal Election Commission; and the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center on September 17, 2019 at the FEC in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for PEN America)

While she acknowledges the possibility that the actual experience for consumers is enhanced with more targeted advertising, Weintraub believes it’s a net negative for democracy.

“On the internet, you get a feed that is designed for you by the particular platforms based on their algorithms and machine learning. They say this is because they think this is what you’re going to want to see... but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the best, informed voters.”

Tech giants take different approaches on political ads

Amid increased scrutiny and backlash, tech leaders have taken slightly different approaches to political ads.

Earlier this month, Facebook’s director of product management Rob Leathern said in a blog post that the social network was choosing to “expand transparency and give more controls” to users with political ads rather than blocking them completely like Twitter (TWTR) has done. Google (GOOG, GOOGL) has taken a more nuanced approach, which will still serve up political ads but will not micro-target beyond ZIP code.

Weintraub is most critical of Facebook, which has only doubled down on its decision to allow political ads on the platform without fact-checking them in the name of free speech.

“Facebook has said they will continue their normal microtargeting practice... what you are seeing might be different not only from what your next door neighbor is seeing, but perhaps what the person sitting across the dinner table from you is seeing ... because it is designed specifically for you based on what you have liked and what the machine learning and algorithms have dictated is going to be the best ad to hit all of your buttons,” she said.

Despite a lot of the criticism, Weintraub does not believe it’s the FEC’s (or any other government entity) responsibility or jurisdiction to change the way these companies operate.

“What I propose is that the platforms take it upon themselves. I’m not proposing a government ban, which raises other kinds of issues,” she said.

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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