Use of AI & digital ads in politics shows it’s a snake oil world of deception, manipulation & contempt for ordinary people
There is a worrying assumption that cuts across the political divide in 2020 – that the electorate are fickle, easily misled and manipulable. We are simply reduced to being data points that can be harvested and maneuvered at will.
There is nothing particularly new about political advertising. It has been with us for decades. But this year’s US presidential elections will break all records. NBC News estimates that nearly $7 billion dollars will be spent on ads over the 2020 election cycle overall, $1 billion more than in 2016.
While a lot of this is going on traditional TV advertising, an increasingly large portion of it (an estimated $1.6 billion) is now paying for digital ads. More of them are now online, peppered throughout Facebook timelines, Google searches, and ad-supported streaming video services like Hulu, Sling, Roku, and Tubi, which have replaced broadcast television for many Americans and which promote their audience-targeting abilities for potential advertisers.
Traditional polling is giving way to AI-powered predictive modeling; massive data exchanges, once considered questionably legal, allow campaigns, Political Action Committees, and other groups to coordinate their efforts. As of May, both presidential campaigns were spending upwards of 80 percent of their ad budgets on direct response ads.
President Trump’s focus on digital ads during the 2016 election was a watershed moment. But what is often forgotten is that it was Barack Obama’s 2008 use of digital ads and microtargeting that really set this ball running, which earned him much praise. However, the Obama campaign’s $8 million spend on online ads, with less than $500,000 of that on Facebook, was a drop in the ocean of what is now coming.
There are two crucial points to understand about digital political advertising. The first is that they’re based on sophisticated algorithmically determined inferences; hidden correlations gathered across thousands of data points by machines hidden from human eyes rather than on proven cause and effect relationships.
The second is that they are driven by social media platforms whose goal is not democratic outcomes, but to accumulate more data upon which to sell more advertising which makes their platforms appear indispensable to political campaigns.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to grasp how digital advertising has changed advertising. In the past, advertising involved identifying a market for products and services. Then media space was bought to address that market. But today, advertising involves training a tech behemoth’s AI algorithms to assemble the right audience from the scattered fragments of potentially similar ones across the internet and serve it targeted adverts.
Almost all political advertising on Facebook, for example, begins with lists of targetable users, which Facebook calls “custom audiences,” based on data acquired outside of Facebook. Facebook then tracks online activity back to its source using 17 standard actions (but which eventually encompasses hundreds of thousands of data points). By tracking if a person reads certain articles, views a particular video or donates to a cause, for example, a potential audience is identified.
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The real snake oil, however, is how Facebook is then able to build “lookalikes” – groups of people who they claim will act similarly to those included in the custom audience. This constantly evolving data set is used to entice campaigners into more targeted activities. And so the process rolls on.
But the problem is that this machine-learning system makes it almost impossible to track outcomes back to causes. The data Facebook makes available cannot say why some adverts work and others don’t. No one can. So the net result of that spend is ignorance rather than certainty. The only certainty is that the political campaign needs to “target” more advertising because some of it may stick.
Political campaigning today amounts to teaching a machine, which campaigners can’t fully understand, how to find their target tribe. The machine goes about its business, identifies similar people in ways no one can identify, based on factors no one knows. It then interprets advertising bids and places ads on further untraceable factors. Outcomes are anyone’s guess.
The important point is that Facebook is not trying to get someone to buy a product or vote for a particular candidate. It aims to provide results that campaigning advertisers declare they want simply by serving ads to similar people who provided the earlier results using similar ads in the first place. Meanwhile, what evidence exists shows that microtargeted ads only really work on reinforcing people’s preconceived notions and that during elections, political campaigns have very little impact on what people already believed.
The disingenuousness of this contains an almost poetic beauty. Political advertising is fodder for the big tech platforms. They incorporate and optimize data sets that make them appear indispensable to the political process. This forms a self-fulfilling narcotic dependency. Everyone has to play lest their opponents take advantage and gain an edge despite the fact that neither side understands how or why this gives them an edge.
In reality, Facebook and the rest are laughing all the way to the bank.
Facebook and other platforms are businesses that will do what it takes to turn a profit. If political campaigns are moronic enough to believe this spend makes a difference, then that’s their loss. In an era when we are being berated about evidence-based research and policies, the absence of evidence has become “evidence” that political advertising is indispensable!
But there is a very serious political point to make about this cynicism. And that is the underlying assumption that cuts across the political divide; namely, that the electorate are fickle, easily misled and manipulable. This denigrates democracy and the electorate, who are simply reduced to being data points that can be harvested and maneuvered at will.
Politics has been reduced to a backroom voodoo “science” led by data manipulation, not ideas, visions or indeed, meaning and aspirations for the future. This denigrates public debate and seeds political cynicism. Politics has become a snake oil world of deception, manipulation and contempt for ordinary people.
The only hope is that people will follow their instincts and do what they have done to date: stick two fingers up at the political establishment and vote for what they truly believe, whatever digital platforms they might use as a source of information or entertainment.
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