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Advertising in the US election: This is exactly how the US election campaign is targeting Facebook users


Customized Facebook advertising is an important tool in the US election campaign. Activists have deciphered the codes behind the ads: Donald Trump urgently needs money, Joe Biden is wooing "Star Trek" fans.

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Donald Trump's Facebook presence


Igor Golovniov / imago images / ZUMA Press

No matter who is elected in the end, the US election campaign already knows a winner: the advertising industry.

In an effort to convince as many voters as possible, the candidates will be putting more than $ 10 billion in television commercials, billboards and Facebook ads before November 3.

Transparency activists were now able to decipher certain codes of the campaigns. 

The group "Who targets me" was founded in the UK in 2017 to study the impact of online political advertising.

The data scandal surrounding the Cambridge Analytica company had made the problem known: while traditional advertising media are visible to everyone, highly specialized online advertising is not open to public discourse.

Thanks to "targeting", candidates can send a wide variety of messages and, for example, promise poorly paid parents more teaching positions, while higher income earners can promise lower taxes.

With the targeted advertising, hardly anyone can tell whether the messages are contradicting each other, since the individual voters only ever see one side of the campaign. 

In order to expose such tactics, "Who targets me" has set up a collection of ads for the US election campaign.

For one, the group relies on a browser plugin that volunteers use to give activists a look at the ads they see on Facebook.

On the other hand, they use data from Facebook themselves. In 2019, following public pressure, the group introduced an "Ad Library" in which anyone can look up which advertisements a specific Facebook advertiser is sending.

"Who targets me?"

was able to read more than 350,000 ads from Trump and Biden.

Even more: the activists were able to add the targeting data of the campaigns to the official Facebook data themselves. 

The link to an advertisement contains references to the audience

Why is?

Like a prayer wheel, Facebook ensures that the platform does not sell its users' personal data.

Rather, the group is making its digital advertising machinery available on loan.

Anyone who wants can, for example, have an advertisement delivered explicitly to SPIEGEL employees - but the advertiser does not learn the exact names and addresses.

However, there are methods to get at least some of the Facebook data. 

Donald Trump in particular directs many identical advertisements to various target groups.

The difference is how the campaign page is linked.

A typical link looks something like this:

The jumble of letters at the end contains many details: which ads users reacted to, whether they have already donated to Trump's election campaign, what age group they belong to and what state they live in.

The project systematically evaluated these links in order to gain insight into the advertising strategies.

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Sam Jeffers, co-founder of "Who targets me", is surprised at the number of advertisements Trump is placing to attract donors.

"If you look at the Biden campaign, he almost completely stopped soliciting donations while Trump's funding campaign continues."

Only 15 percent of the ads assigned "Who targets me" to the "Persuasion" category - that is, to convince undecided voters.

Here the difference in the target group approach is particularly noticeable.

While Trump fans receive messages in which Biden is insulted as a naive straw man for a radical left, the campaign planners use a conciliatory tone to voters: "With the Trump administration every citizen will have the same opportunities in life, justice and the chance to to live the American dream. " 

But the Democrats are also showing their teeth: After all, three percent of their ads run under the code "Condemn Trump", in which the election campaigners particularly want to stir up anger over the failure of the US government in the pandemic.

While Trump is more likely to address older voters and call on them to apply for postal votes, the Biden campaign focuses on younger voters who are to be convinced that fans of Elisabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders should also vote for the consensus candidate .

The campaign archive also unearths some bizarre things.

For example, the actor Jonathan Del Arco, who played the Borg "Hugh" in "Star Trek", is promoting a virtual donation gala for Star Trek fans.

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Both sides spend huge sums of money on Facebook.

Trump's campaign organization has booked ads for just under $ 100 million through its Facebook website alone.

Joe Biden comes to around $ 75 million.

The campaign database of "Who targets me" so far only scratches the surface.

So far, only the candidates' official election campaign channels have been recorded.

At the end of September, British broadcaster Channel 4 revealed that the Trump campaign maintains a database of millions of voters with the comment "deterrence" - "deterrence".

These voters should therefore not even be convinced by Trump, but they should be prevented from voting as a whole.

Trump's spokesman denied the report, and there were no references to such campaigns in the transparency activists' data archive either.

The activists want to use the data from the browser plugins to get a better overview soon.

For example, they want to find out how often a user sees different ads and how exactly Facebook's advertising algorithms work.

It is not the end of November 3rd: The German Bundestag election next year is already on the watch list of "Who targets me".

Icon: The mirror

Source: spiegel

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