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Politics and Policy

How Targeted Ads Can Affect The Way We Vote

Jacob Solis
KUNR Public Radio

Nevada's Attorney General Aaron Ford is joining a 47-state anti-trust investigation into Facebook for, among other things, endangering consumer data. This comes after Facebook was scrutinized for its connections to now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the personal data of millions of peoples' profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes.

One of those users was David Carroll, an associate professor of Media Design at Parsons School of Design in New York, and the recent subject of The Great Hack, a documentary about the scandal. He spoke with KUNR's Paul Boger about how targeted ads can be used to influence how we vote.

"This feature, for example--that voter files could be uploaded into Facebook to target voters by name, individually--that was a feature that was not available in previous campaigns. It was rolled out and field tested in 2016," Carroll explained. "We didn't even know the possible effects of that kind of voter targeting in a previous election. A very simple mechanic was launched, and we're now figuring out if it had any effects. But political consultants have told me that it would be political malpractice now not to upload voter files into Facebook and not to micro-target voters this way. It's standard practice now."

Groups like Cambridge Analytica also used a wide variety of advertising strategies, including some developed for use by the military. Carroll says it's difficult to know exactly how the company was reaching voters because the organization refused to make the information available.

"We shouldn't assume that Cambridge Analytica was doing political ads in the conventional sense of a typical message that was really identifiable by someone as a political ad, and certainly may not have had the disclosure in 'this message approved by.' The whistleblowers have come forward and documented examples or described ways that the company was doing things that would not be defined as normal political ads."

Carroll says those examples included going as far as creating so-called fake news sites that were creating fake content, using fake accounts to amplify things, and creating fake events that people were invited to. 

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