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Popping the Bubble: Congress’s Most Recent Attempt to Counter Political Microtargeting | Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law

We have all experienced targeted advertising, whether it’s Amazon ads for that new toaster you need or airline ads for flights to that vacation spot you have been eyeing. Companies advertise this way by collecting data about our shopping habits and suggesting products similar to what we have bought before. However, all of this is old news. Companies have been using this tool for nearly a decade. Many of us do not think twice about clicking a terms of service agreement that allows data collection. Perhaps some people even enjoy the convenience of seeing ads for things they might actually need or want. However, the 2016 presidential election exposed a frightening form of targeted ads: political microtargeting.

Microtargeting works the same way that all targeted ads work. Companies collect data and then use that data to advertise to a desired party. In many ways, traditional targeted ads are even more specific than microtargeting since they are based on one person’s shopping habits. However, ever-increasing data collection capabilities and the political nature of recent microtargeting present new concerns. Knowing someone wants to buy deck furniture is much different than knowing that someone is a 50-year old, white, Baptist, libertarian from Wisconsin who responds well to ads that feature a political candidate’s family. Two concerns raised by use of this information are (1) privacy breaches and (2) the formation and maintenance of radical political bubbles. The best examples of the profoundly troubling application of this technology are the ongoing investigation into Cambridge Analytica and the Russian troll farms exposed last year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Facebook has been the center of privacy rights controversies almost since its inception. However, 2018 saw the emergence of the largest controversy yet. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, accessed the data of millions of Facebook users through a quiz app, including users who never used the app. Political campaigns then hired the firm to develop microtargeted political ads. However, the exact scale of this privacy breach is still unknown. Likewise, it is unclear who had access to the data. An investigation in the United Kingdom found evidence that the data was accessed from Russia. If correct, this connection would point to findings made in the United States regarding Russian manipulation of Facebook.

In 2018, Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies who ran a “troll farm.” These troll farms spread divisive misinformation by creating seemingly authentic Facebook groups and buying political ads on Facebook that microtargeted specific audiences. These efforts often sought to create and maintain radical political bubbles vulnerable to misinformation. Some of these radicalized bubbles have even spilled into the offline world. In 2016, a man went to a Washington D.C. pizza parlor with an assault rift to investigate claims of a secret pedophile ring operated by high-ranking Democrats, a conspiracy theory propagated by Russian trolls. This disturbing manipulation of Facebook is significantly aided by microtargeting techniques that can target political groups as small as twenty people.

In the face of this disturbing abuse, Facebook updated its policies regarding app data collection and political ads. These policies include (1) limiting app developers’ access to user data and (2) heightening verification standards to buy political ads. However, it is unclear if these policies will actually work. For instance, the policy’s enhanced disclosure requirements for foreign parties could be easily negated by registering a shell company in the United States. Also, while Facebook has faced the most criticism, other companies, such as Google and Apple, also allow third-party access to user data. This massive scale of data collection has prompted congressional action.

With the 2020 election cycle heating up, Senator Diane Feinstein introduced the Voter Privacy Act in August 2019. The proposed bill would allow people to stop political campaigns and social media companies from collecting their data. It would also require political campaigns to alert individuals when they obtain personal information from third parties. While measures will not put an absolute end to political microtargeting, they could significantly decrease the effectiveness of microtargeting and help voters control the information they give to campaigns. Despite the benefits of these measures, there are still issues with the bill as it places much of the burden on voters to reach out to social media companies and political campaigns. The bill also faces a hostile Senate that has blocked many election security bills. Even if passed, it may face First Amendment challenges similar to Citizens United v. FEC. While such legislation may be worth attempting in order to protect the public and our election process, one thing is clear: political microtargeting is here to stay, and the burden will likely be on all of us to be aware of its effects.

— Michael Dunbar

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