How political candidates are stealthily targeting voters online

American voters were bombarded with online ads as candidates scrambled to get out votes in the last days of midterm campaigning. But the offensive more closely resembled millions of targeted missiles rather than an indiscriminate artillery barrage.

Voters can be advertised to on the basis of the interests, location and what they are searching for online. Numerous companies are building extensive databases of information about individuals based on their online habits and social media profiles.

The targeting of ads takes place automatically without the Internet user being aware of the process.

Targeted advertising is nothing new in American politics. Since the 1960s, campaigns have used direct mail to reach specific groups of voters. But privacy advocates are starting to raise questions about the new techniques used by campaigns.

Michael Bassik, senior vice president of campaign consultancy Global Strategy Group, described the growth in online political advertising as “exponential”.

Candidates are experimenting with Google and Facebook ads in-house, driving much of the growth. These are the easiest to use but even they involve targeting through search terms or interests. Consultancies like Global Strategy Group are able to offer a step up in complexity.

This year’s elections could represent just the tip of the iceberg. It is very difficult to measure total online ad spending but Bassik estimated it might be as low as 1 percent of the nearly $3 billion that will be plowed into midterm campaigning.

The most controversial practice is behavioral marketing. It relies on dropping cookies – small pieces of computer code – into an Internet users’ browser that track the Web sites they visit or signal demographic information. Ad networks will then display ads their algorithms determine are most relevant to the users’ interests.

Rapleaf, a San Francisco-based targeting firm is one of many companies taking this process a step further. It builds a profile of a user based on his or her email address and combining publicly available online data with offline information collected from sources like voter registers.

The information the company collects is tied to an individual but it insists that it only passes on anonymous data to advertisers.

In a May blog post, Rapleaf said it operates a dedicated political division and offered advice on tools for candidates. It does not mention its work with political candidates anywhere else on its Web site.

The company has been the target of a major Wall Street Journal investigation into Internet privacy and did not respond to a request for an interview this week.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), an Internet think tank, supports tighter regulation of behavioral advertising techniques. Senator John Kerry, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on technology, announced in July his intention to introduce an online privacy bill.

But Justin Brookman, a senior fellow at CDT, said that political campaigns would not fall under the proposed law. Most research into online advertising has been concerned with commercial marketing, leaving politics largely untouched.

“It hasn’t been thought about that much,” Brookman said, speaking from the organization’s Washington office.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, said that political campaigns are using online advertising “aggressively” and that users are unaware how to block them. Sifry described himself as “a mix of analyst and agitator” who wants to make the Internet work for citizens.

Tools do exist to allow Internet users to stop themselves being tracked. “We might be at the far swing of the pendulum,” Sifry said, explaining that users are increasingly taking action to defend their privacy.

Sifry added that campaigns are holding back on some fronts. For example, they have stopped short of including individuals’ names in ads, he said.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees online advertising, is preparing to release a report into behavioral marketing. In a recent speech Commissioner Julie Brill said the authority supports continued self-regulation but added, “I personally have not been satisfied with the industry’s efforts to date.”

“The collection of consumer information – both online and offline – is ubiquitous and fare more extensive than many consumers know,” she said.

Political advertising is more lightly regulated than commercial advertising for free speech reasons. Campaigns are exempt from the FTC-administered do not call registry designed to allow individuals to opt out of cold calling schemes.

Campaign ads fall in a gray area between free speech and individuals’ privacy rights. “There’s no inherent political right to know as much as possible about your audience,” Brookman said.

Calling too strenuously for regulation could leave politicians exposed. “I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a candidate violates their political rhetoric through their own online communications,” Bassik said.

“The best practice in politics is to talk to people who have already opted in,” Sifry said. That might include strategies such as advertising to Facebook users who have ‘liked’ a candidate.

Even that approach comes with the risk of only reaching voters with messages that reinforce their existing views. The effect could be to polarize politics, according to Sifry.

“These tools are getting good at slicing and dicing people and organizing them according to divisions,” he said. The result could be “stronger but narrower political awareness”.

Despite the concerns, the use of online advertising is likely to become more pervasive as campaigns come to understand its potential.

In September, Global Strategy Group published findings of research that for the first time demonstrated the effectiveness of online ads. The company worked with Centro, an ad buying agency, Google and Chris Kelly, a primary candidate for California attorney general. Kelly is also a former privacy chief at Facebook.

For part of his campaign, voters in Santa Barbara were exposed to TV advertising alone and voters in Palm Springs were hit with TV and online ads. Follow-up polls showed a boost in Kelly’s recognition and favorability.

Companies like Google and AOL are also working hard to build the market for political ads. Bassik hopes Global Strategy Group’s findings will help convince future campaigns that online advertising is worthwhile.

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