How political candidates target you on social media based on your music taste, shopping habits and favorite TV shows

And Michael Bennet wants to reach people who love Taylor Swift and Lizzo, while avoiding devoted Jason Aldean listeners.

Candidates in some of the most prominent mid-term races use Facebook and Instagram ad targeting to target messages to voters based on their music tastes, sports fandoms, shopping destinations and television habits, a CNN review of data from the social media platforms found.

“There are very few things in American culture, whether it be media organizations or music groups or brands, that have no political association,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the school’s Propaganda Research Lab. leads. “Political campaigns use that to their advantage.”

The tactic is powered by a service Meta calls “Detailed Targeting.” It allows political campaigns and other advertisers to show their ads to people who share specific interests, or to prevent people interested in certain topics from seeing their ads. According to the company, Facebook determines whether a user is interested in a topic based on the ads they click and the pages they visit.
It has long been routine practice for political campaigns to use this interest-based targeting for Facebook ads. But earlier this year, Meta blocked advertisers from targeting users based on their interests in social issues, causes, or political figures, saying it was removing options for “topics people might consider sensitive.” The change eliminated the ability to target ads to people interested in climate change or Second Amendment rights, or, say, former presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

In the wake of that change, political strategists say, campaigns have turned to pop culture as a stand-in for politics as they try to reach certain groups of voters.

“It requires us to do a little more research and understand who these audiences are — what kind of music they listen to, what kind of TV shows they watch,” said Eric Reif, a director of the Democratic Political Company. Blue State. This can be commercial data, survey research or data from Spotify or streaming video platforms, he says.

Overall, Democratic candidates in 20 of the most competitive U.S. Senate and Governor races use far more Facebook and Instagram ads than their opponents, spending more than $4 million on ads on the United States between mid-August and mid-September. platforms, compared to about $645,000 by Republicans.

In the 20 races CNN has reviewed for that period, nearly all Democratic campaigns targeted at least some ads to users with specific interests, while fewer Republicans did. Many candidates run hundreds of Facebook ads each month, often with varying content, and the data doesn’t show which individual ads target which interest groups. That makes it difficult to say exactly how campaigns tailor their pitches to different groups of voters.

But many of the campaigns’ most common targets involve brands that are stereotypical stand-ins for political affiliations: Several Democrats targeted people interested in NPR and Whole Foods, while NASCAR and Cracker Barrel were popular options for the GOP.

The North Carolina Senate race offers perhaps the greatest contrast in goals. Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley targeted ads to users interested in PBS and the New York Times Book Review, while her GOP opponent Rep. Ted Budd focused on Barstool Sports and the Hallmark Channel. Beasley barred those interested in the musician Ted Nugent or the podcaster Joe Rogan from seeing some of her ads, while Budd specifically targeted ads to fans of the two men.

Rogan, a controversial figure popular on the right, drew more attention from campaigns targeting Facebook ads than any other topic of interest during the period analyzed by CNN. Nine Democratic campaigns have barred those interested in Rogan from receiving some of their ads.

But in a clear sign of how he connects with non-traditional voters, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee Fetterman took the opposite approach, with his campaign targeting some of his ads to Rogan’s fans. (Beto O’Rourke, the party’s nominee for Texas governor, also ran some ads targeting people interested in Rogan, along with other ads that barred them.)

Megan Clasen, a partner at Democratic political firm Gambit Strategies, said more broadly, interest-based targeting is most effective for candidates trying to reach people who already support them.

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“It works really well for a fundraising or list-building campaign, where you’re really trying to hone in on a smaller audience,” says Clasen, who works on multiple mid-term races. “But if we’re trying to convince voters, we don’t want to exclude too many people and leave votes on the table.”

The targeting data shows a wide range of approaches. Florida senior senator Rubio was one of the most active GOP users of interest-based targeting: More than 85% of the Republican’s Facebook ad spend was for ads targeting users interested in a long-term interest. list of topics from college football to deer hunting to Southern Living Magazine.

Some of the ads from Bennet, a Democratic senator representing Colorado, were especially tailored to voter playlists. His campaign is aimed at people interested in Swift, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, but excludes those interested in country singer Aldean. The Bennet campaign also targeted reggaeton and Latin pop music lovers, as well as more general topics like “Spanish Language,” “Culture of Mexico,” and “Latin American Cuisine,” in an apparent effort to recruit Latino voters. . (Bennet’s campaign did not respond to a question about how the ad targets compared to the senator’s own taste in music.)

The targets of other candidates seemed more mind-bending. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign prevented some of his ads from showing to people interested in Saturday Night Live or Kate McKinnon, the show’s former cast member. O’Rourke’s ads targeted people with diverse interests, ranging from BirdWatching Magazine to One Direction to “drinking water.”

While Meta doesn’t allow candidates to target users based on their race or ethnicity, they are allowed to target by gender, age, and location. Several Democratic candidates, including Govs. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan targeted a significant portion of their ads specifically to women.

And Fetterman, who repeatedly beat up his opponent, Mehmet Oz, before his previous stay in New Jersey, used targeting to bar people in the Garden State from receiving a handful of his ads.

Targeting raises concerns about data privacy

Facebook’s interest-based targeting isn’t unique — it’s part of a larger trend in the political campaign industry to select increasingly precise groups of voters. For example, Meta allows campaigns to upload lists of phone numbers or email addresses of specific people they want to see their ads to. And newer technologies tailor ads to streaming video and other platforms based on hyper-specific geographic and demographic data — so even neighbors watching the same show can see different political messages.

Experts said using this type of targeting raised important questions about data privacy and user consent. Woolley, the UT-Austin researcher, argued that Meta should put even more restrictions on how campaigns can target users.

“People’s data is used without their consent to pigeonhole and manipulate them into not only buying something, but also voting for a particular person or changing their views on a particular topic,” Woolley said. . “People have a reasonable expectation that they can represent specific interests without being willfully targeted by political campaigns.”

A whistleblower with an envelope.

Users can change their Facebook settings to opt out of interest-based targeting for individual topics. But most people probably have no idea they’re seeing certain political ads because of their interest in a band or TV show, Woolley noted.

And Damon McCoy, a New York University professor associated with the Cybersecurity for Democracy research group, said campaigns used interest-based targeting “as a proxy for targeting a specific demographic that Facebook expressly prohibits targeting,” such as race or ethnicity — essentially a loophole in the platform.

Meta spokesperson Ashley Settle said in a statement that the company routinely updates and removes its targeting options to improve the ad experience and reduce the potential for abuse.

“We want to connect people with the candidates and issues they care about, while also giving them control over the ads they see,” Settle said. “That’s why we let people hide ads from advertisers or choose to see fewer ads on certain topics, such as politics.”

The main reason interest-based targeting is successful for political campaigns is because the U.S. is so politically polarized, with many cultural indicators related to political affiliations in a way that they may not have been a few decades ago, experts said. Even some social media strategists admit to being concerned about what the tactics say about American culture.

“It’s absolutely alarming that people are now so polarized that you can know a lot about someone’s lifestyle just by whether they’re Democrat or Republican,” Clasen said.

See how advertisers are targeting you

To see which interests advertisers can use to target you, visit Facebook’s ad subject settings page (accessible only if you’re signed in). You can choose to see “fewer” ads related to specific goals, which prevents advertisers from targeting you based on that interest. You can also click the “…” in the top right corner of any Facebook ad and click “Why am I seeing this ad?” Selecting. to learn more about targeting information for individual ads you see.

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