Trump’s targeting of Black voters on Facebook in 2016 shows microtargeting is a threat to democracy, experts warn

Home / Trump’s targeting of Black voters on Facebook in 2016 shows microtargeting is a threat to democracy, experts warn

  • Channel 4 on Monday revealed a leaked cache of data from the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.
  • The data showed how the campaign microtargeted people on Facebook, and labelled a particular group of users as targets for “deterrence” from voting. This group was disproportionately made up of Black users.
  • Experts told Business Insider the report highlights the threat that microtargeting on a vast platform like Facebook’s poses towards democratic elections.
  • “Facebook talks a lot about bad actors misusing its platform, but the truth is that the biggest bad actor on Facebook is Facebook,” one said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The now-defunct Cambridge Analytica entered the news cycle once again on Monday, four years after its name became synonymous with the huge data scandal that changed the tech landscape forever.

UK broadcaster Channel 4 obtained a leaked data cache from the Trump 2016 presidential campaign which contained the data of 200 million Americans’ Facebook accounts.

The data demonstrated the Trump campaign’s strategy for categorizing different types of users to target them with content and ads on Facebook, a process known as microtargeting. Microtargeting is broadly not regulated in the US.

In one instance, Trump’s campaign labeled a group of users “deterrence”, who the campaign tried to dissuade from voting.

This group was overwhelmingly comprised of Black people. While Black users made up only 13% of the total dataset, they comprised nearly a third of users in the “deterrence” group — 3.5 million in total.

Included in the data obtained by Channel 4 was an ad made by Cambridge Analytica targeted at Black Americans and which attacked Hillary Clinton for remarks she made in 1996 about “superpredators.” 

The Trump campaign has dismissed the Channel 4 report as “fake news.”

While the efficacy of Cambridge Analytica’s tactics back in 2016 remain unclear, experts said Facebook’s reach and granularity was a long-term threat to democracy.

“Cambridge Analytica’s ‘insights’, if you can call them that, played only a relatively small role in Trump’s voter suppression strategy, but the truth is that you don’t need Cambridge Analytica to do that — Facebook gives you all the tools itself,” Cambridge University computer science professor Dr. Jennifer Cobbe told Business Insider. 

“Facebook talks a lot about bad actors misusing its platform, but the truth is that the biggest bad actor on Facebook is Facebook,” she added. 

Laura Lazaro Cabrera, a legal officer at Privacy International, told Business Insider that Facebook provided the framework for targeted suppression without any need for illegal tactics.

“We wouldn’t see microtargeting of Black voters unless platforms enabled it to happen in the first place,” she said.

“Facebook has made extremely granular targeting options commercially available on its platform. Any political party can use these capabilities to its advantage for a price, regardless of the view it seeks to promote or groups it wants to exclude.”

What makes Facebook different?

Political campaigns targeting people by demographic is nothing new.

“Segmenting the electorate, assigning them a score for how likely they are to vote for or against a candidate, and targeting them with campaign material on that basis has been a mainstay of political campaigning across parties and around the world for years,” said Dr. Cobbe.

One major difference is simply in the Trump campaign’s chosen tactics— using ads to deter and suppress voter turnout, rather than to boost it.

“The thing that’s shocking-slash-troubling about this is that there’s this category of suppression, that ‘deterrence’ part,” NAACP vice president Jamal Watkins told Channel 4.

“We use similar voter file data, but it’s to motivate, persuade, encourage folks to participate. We don’t actually use the data to say ‘who can we deter and keep at home.’ That seems fundamentally it’s a shift from the notion of democracy,” said Watkins.

“I don’t believe Facebook has fully disclosed their role, and fully disclosed the types of ads that were run, who was involved and literally how they may have been embedded in, say, the Trump campaign to make this all come to life,” Watkins added.

Experts told Business Insider that Facebook’s sheer scale and the obscurity surrounding the ads you see on your feed make it dangerous for scrutinizing when campaigns are engaging in tactics like this.

“We’re running behind Facebook saying what did you know and when did you know it,” Dr. Nakeema Stefflbauer, an expert in tech policy ethics, told Business Insider.

A Facebook spokeswoman told Business Insider it doesn’t allow advertisers to filter their audience by race — however it is possible for political campaigns to build their own databases which extrapolate people’s race from the wealth of data available on the platform.

“All the data we leave behind can be used to infer our political stances and views, party affiliation, our religion, our sexual orientation, our race and gender,” said Dr. Sandra Wachter of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Facebook says it won’t have a problem like it did in 2016 — experts are skeptical

Facebook has had four years to gear itself up for another Trump presidential campaign, and since then it has brought in measures including: labelling paid-for political ads, creating a vast searchable library of political ads that users can access, and banning new political ads entirely in the week preceding the election.

In response to the Channel 4 report, Facebook gave Business Insider this statement:

“Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook — what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today. We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library to make political advertising more transparent than anywhere else, and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide. We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voting information campaign in American history,” a spokeswoman told Business Insider.

The experts Business Insider spoke to were unconvinced.

“These are positive steps, but ultimately remain short-sighted solutions, and can hardly undo the damage already done during months of targeted campaigning against Black voters,” said Privacy International’s Laura Lazaro Cabrera.  “Facebook must focus on providing transparency into its targeting black box and enabling users and external actors to understand how they are being targeted,” she added.

Rashad Robinson, a spokesperson for the activist Color Of Change PAC, agreed Facebook’s actions are “too little too late for the millions of Black voters who were disenfranchised four years ago.”

Dr. Wachter said change needs to come in at a regulatory level, rather than letting platforms like Facebook take the lead.

“We need to think about new regulation and governance and ad tech and political targeting, privacy, and non-discrimination laws need to be front and centre. Our current laws were designed at a time where we did not foresee those risks and harms, and thus do not account for it,” Wachter told Business Insider.

Cobbe agreed strong government regulation would be needed to curb microtargeting — but was not optimistic.

“I wouldn’t expect that to happen […] because governments and politicians themselves regularly use those very same behavioural advertising tools,” she said.

Cabrera said the Channel 4 documentary should also serve to remind other countries, not just the US, of the danger microtargeting poses.

“The measures rolled out ahead of this US election have not been replicated in other countries, and there is no guarantee by Facebook that it will apply them elsewhere as a matter of policy. Until this is the case, we will likely see more microtargeting of groups based on protected characteristics,” she said.

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