Digital Marketing, Personal Information and Political Campaigns: Advocates should press for policy reforms and not leave it to the “experts”
By: Jeff Chester | Jan 15 2020
A new report on how political marketing insiders and platforms such as Facebook view the “ethical” issues raised by the role of digital marketing in elections illustrates why advocates and others concerned about election integrity should make this issue a public-policy priority. We cannot afford to leave it in the hands of “Politech” firms and political campaign professionals, who appear unable to acknowledge the consequences to democracy of their unfettered use of powerful data-driven online-marketing applications.
“Digital Political Ethics: Aligning Principles with Practice” reports on a series of conversations and a two-day meeting last October that included representatives of firms (such as Blue State, Targeted Victory, WPA Intelligence, and Revolution Messaging) that work either for Democrats or Republicans, as well as officials from both Facebook and Twitter. The goal of the project was to “identify areas of agreement among key stakeholders concerning ethical principles and best practices in the conduct of digital campaigning in the U.S.” Perhaps it should not be a surprise that this group of people appears to be incapable of critically examining (or even candidly assessing) all of the problems connected with the role of digital marketing in political campaigns.
Missing from the report is any real concern about how today’s electoral process takes advantage of the absence of any meaningful privacy safeguards in the U.S. A vast commercial surveillance apparatus that has no bounds has been established. This same system that is used to market goods and services, and which is driven by data-brokers, marketing clouds, real-time ad-decision engines, geolocation identification and other AI-based technologies—along with the clout of leading platforms and publishers—is now also used for political purposes. All of us are tracked and profiled 24/7, including where we go and what we do—with little location privacy anymore. Political insiders and data ad companies such as Facebook, however, are unwilling to confront the problem of this loss of privacy, given how valuable all this personal data is to their business model or political goal.
Another concern is that these insiders now view digital marketing as a normative, business-as-usual process—and nothing out of the ordinary. But anyone who knows how the system operates should be deeply concerned about the nontransparent and often far-reaching ways digital marketing is constructed to influence our decision-making and behaviors, including at emotional and subconscious levels. The report demonstrates that campaign officials have largely accepted as reasonable the various invasive and manipulative technologies and techniques that the ad-tech industry has developed over the past decade. Perhaps these officials are simply being pragmatic. But society cannot afford such a cynical position. Today’s political advertising is not yesterday’s TV commercial—nor is it purely an effort to “microtarget” sympathetic market segments. Today’s digital marketing apparatus follows all of us continuously, Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. The marketing ecosystem is finely tuned to learn how we react, transforming itself depending on those reactions, and making decisions about us in milliseconds in order to use—and refine—various tactics to influence us, entirely including new ad formats, each tested and measured to have us think and behave one way or another. And this process is largely invisible to voters, regulators and the news media.
But for the insiders, microtargeting helps get the vote out and encourages participation. Nothing much is said about what happened in the 2016 U.S. election, when some political marketers sought to suppress the vote among communities of color, while others engaged is disinformation. Some of these officials now propose that political campaigns should be awarded a digital “right of way” that would guarantee them unfettered access to Facebook, Google and other sites, as well as ensure favorable terms and support. This is partly in response to the recent and much-needed reforms adopted by Twitter and Google that either eliminate or restrict how political campaigns can use their platforms, which many in the politech industry dislike.
Some campaign officials see FCC rules regulating TV ads for political ads as an appropriate model to build policies for digital campaigning. That notion should be alarming to those who care about the role that money plays in politics, let alone the nature of today’s politics (as well as those who know the myriad failures of the FCC over the decades). The U.S. needs to develop a public policy for digital data and advertising that places the interests of the voter and democracy before that of political campaigns. Such a policy should include protecting the personal information of voters; limiting deceptive and manipulative ad practices (such as lookalike modeling); as well as prohibiting those contemporary ad-tech practices (e.g., algorithmic based real-time programmatic ad systems) that can unfairly influence election outcomes.
Also missing from the discussion is the impact of the never-ending expansion of “deep-personalization” digital marketing applications designed to influence and shift consumer behavior more effectively. The use of biodata, emotion recognition, and other forms of what’s being called “precision data”—combined with a vast expansion of always-on sensors operating in an Internet of Things world—will provide political groups with even more ways to help transform electoral outcomes. If civil society doesn’t take the lead in reforming this system, powerful insiders who have their own conflicts of interests will be able to shape the future of democratic decision-making in the U.S. We cannot afford to leave it to the insiders to decide what is best for our democracy.