At least one political party is avoiding negotiating by using micro-targeted Facebook ads focused on just the politician and their inner circle, and the same tool could be used to manipulate people with major influence on public opinion. During the 2017 U.K. general elections, Jeremy Corbyn, the incumbent 69-year-old leader of the Labour Party, wanted to invest heavily in digital ads encouraging voter registration. Labour Party campaign chiefs thought it was a waste of money and so decided to trick the incumbent leader of their own party.
They spent £5,000 on voter registration Facebook ads that met Corbyn’s demands, but here’s the catch: only Corbyn and his associates could see them. According to a forthcoming book from Tom Baldwin, a former Labour communications director, they were individually-targeted, hyper-specific ads made possible through Facebook’s advertising tools, reports The Times and The Independent. “If it was there for them [Corbyn and his associates], they thought it must be there for everyone,” an unnamed Labour Party official said to Baldwin. “It wasn’t. That’s how targeted ads can work.”
Using Facebook’s Custom Audience advertising tool, businesses and campaigns can “sniper target” people by individually submitting information that matches Facebook profiles — like names, email addresses, phone numbers, date of birth, and gender. The tool cannot target down to a literal individual and requires at least a couple dozen people for a campaign to run.
Since a number of political situations have unfolded in the last couple of years that, in retrospect, were heavily influenced by Facebook, the company started a political ad archive and significantly raised the bar on what it will approve as a political ad. But it put these measures in place only a few weeks ago, and it’s limited to ads targeting areas in the U.S., meaning that we don’t currently have a side-by-side comparison of what ads Corbyn and his inner circle were served as opposed to the general public. The book, Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy, purports to provide specific examples of what Corbyn would have seen.
On one hand, this is a strange story about how a baby boomer politician and his closest political buddies did not know what ads were being served on behalf of their own campaign. (Granted, the structure of the U.K. government means that party elections have astronomically low financial stakes. £4.3 million was spent across all U.K. political parties for the 2017 election; compare that to the $10 billion advertising price tag for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) But more importantly, it illustrates how Facebook’s “sniper targeting” advertising tools can be used to infiltrate the thoughts of major public figures and their closest allies, and in a successful scenario, manipulate their thinking. As of May, Facebook has new thresholds for political ads, which broadly includes anything related to a candidate, election, vote, legislative issue. But anything that doesn’t fit into that definition of “political” will remain relatively unregulated. Clearly, this has huge implications for businesses and companies struggling with internal division.
Or, say one has the email addresses and phone numbers of Donald Trump Jr. and a few of his buddies (firstname.lastname@example.org). Don Junior is extremely active on social media and frequently likes and interacts with targeted ads. If one wanted to get a message to Don, a Custom Audience and some carefully-chosen text over a picture of a luxury yacht or smoked piece of meat would do the trick. (These are, to the best of our knowledge, real Instagram ad interests of Donald Trump Junior, as unveiled by a Slate investigation.)
This is a facetious example, but the tool could be used to generate real harm if put into the hands of people with the power to spread conspiracy theories, such as Alex Jones or Roseanne Barr. Anyone with a penchant for chaos could sow the seed of a dangerous disinformation campaign just by getting information of powerful public figures and a few associates that’s linked to their Facebook accounts.