Social network lets campaigns match profiles with political habits and contact info, as Silicon Valley influence becomes ‘game-changer’ for targeted ads
If you lived in north-east Iowa, the evangelical stronghold where the battle for the soul of conservative American politics will play out in person on Monday, and happened to have given Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign your email address sometime in the last few months, you might find something especially appealing this weekend in your Facebook feed.
You might see, amid the family photos, a menacing video of Donald Trump talking about how “my views are a little bit different than if I lived in Iowa”. LIKE ON ABORTION, blares the sponsored ad from Cruz’s deep-pocketed, social media-savvy digital team. And you might wonder how this campaign managed, by paying Facebook, to differentiate between Trump’s “New York values” and “OURS”.
Facebook, which told investors on Wednesday it was “excited about the targeting”, does not let candidates track individual users. But it does now allow presidential campaigns to upload their massive email lists and voter files – which contain political habits, real names, home addresses and phone numbers – to the company’s advertising network. The company will then match real-life voters with their Facebook accounts, which follow individuals as they move across congressional districts and are filled with insightful data.
The data is encrypted and not maintained by Facebook after ads run, the company said. Acxiom, a massive data broker based in Little Rock, Arkansas, helps campaigns upload the voter info. But a campaign operative said the Texas senator has been using Facebook ads to raise money, among other things, and a Guardian analysis shows Cruz-affiliated donors are spending $10,000 per day on Facebook “placement” as the first vote nears.
In Iowa, the Cruz campaign is using Facebook to target voters on a range of broad issues like immigration controls to niche specific causes such as abolishing state laws against the sale of fireworks. The Guardian understands the campaign has built a specific model for this relatively small group of voters, who may be responsive to Cruz ads against big government, and in some cases is going out to find them individually.
Political scientists, current campaign advisors and former digital gurus to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree: a Facebook ad is perhaps the best money to spend in what could be a nearly $10bn election, and 2016 is fast becoming the year Facebook learned to profit from how you vote.
The acceleration of real-time voter targeting reflects a growing consensus that, in addition to knocking down Trump this weekend, campaigns of the future will depend as much on being able to track people across screens and apps as knocking on doors or sending out flyers.
Facebook profiles turned into campaign currency also offer another sign of Silicon Valley’s growing influence in America’s political system. The company in recent years has increased its lobbying efforts in Washington to press immigration, surveillance and patent policy, while doubling its political staff and adding other features to make it easier for campaigns to reach specific voting groups in what Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg this week dubbed “the new town hall”.
“Facebook is the easiest and most effective platform,” said Zac Moffatt, the top digital strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign whose firm, Targeted Victory, has worked with most of the Republican presidential candidates and the Republican National Committee during this election cycle. “They are so much more valuable than they were eight years ago.”
Shaping perceptions, making millions
Campaigns have been using Facebook to talk to voters since 2008, when Obama’s first bid for president famously used the platform to get supporters to push their digital friends to support the upstart senator. In 2012, Facebook began co-sponsoring presidential debates in the Republican primaries.
This time around, as Republicans spend big to catch up on Democrats’ advantage on tech-driven campaigns, Facebook has launched another new feature to help campaigns target politically active users, who might post constantly about Trump’s latest insult or share the increasing poll leads of Bernie Sanders....MUCH MORE