#onpoli newsletter - How social media has changed the public square

Exploring a world of big data and microtargeted messaging
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Sep 12, 2019
#onpoli podcast co-host John Michael McGrath and producer Eric Bombicino.



Hello, #onpoli people,

Over the course of our lives, we all get to talk to people who are smarter than us. (If you disagree, then congratulations. You are amazing.)

Talking to people smarter than me has basically been my job description at The Agenda for the past seven years: calling up experts and posing questions that are very easy to ask and seemingly impossible to answer. How has Russian identity changed since the collapse of the Soviet UnionWhy do people become violent extremists? Are science and religion compatible?

On this season of the podcast, I wanted to explore another simple question with a complex answer: how has political advertising changed? This time around, though, I had to answer it myself — or at least try to. In the process, I realized this was far too big a question for a single episode to tackle, so we decided to dig into one aspect of it.

Enter stage right: Jeff Ballingall, founder of Ontario Proud and Canada Proud. The former is one of the most prominent of a new batch of third-party advertisers that have been wildly successful on Canadian social media.

They’ve registered with Elections Canada, they accept donations, and they’re geared up for the federal election on October 21.

To help us understand the influence these groups are having on the electoral landscape, we heard from Ballingall in this week’s episode, along with the CBC’s Kaleigh Rogers and Justin Ling from Canadaland’s OPPO podcast.

Here’s what some of you had to say about the interview.

Say what?

Tweets talking about recent onpoli podcast

Veteran political journalist Keith Leslie emailed us to suggest the fact that “Ontario Proud outpaces most mainstream media on Facebook ‘engagements’ is more proof [the mainstream media] need to get off Facebook if they ever hope to restore their credibility. Don’t post news stories alongside the hate, lies and misinformation on Facebook, which proudly refuses to take responsibility for anything posted on its platform. Don’t force people to try to sort out real news from the fake by posting journalism where the fake news rules.” 

Is there a microtarget on my back?

There is another aspect to how political advertising has evolved that we didn’t get to on the podcast. Let’s do it now.

Enter stage left: behavioural microtargeting. Like most things we’re trying to make sense of in the 21st century, we can file this one under The Internet Has Changed Stuff. And, like most complicated things, it’s best to explain it so even a five-year-old could understand. Here goes:

Once upon a time (kids love the story set-up), before Facebook, before computers, before radio, before Marshall McLuhan even worried about media and messages (yes, your five-year-old should know who McLuhan is), politicians had to gather people around to speak to them directly. Around fires. In public squares. In the agora in Greece. 

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon
In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate.

Then came newspapers. Then radio. And, eventually, TV — which helped this chap JFK get better at debating than Richard Nixon. But throughout all this change, one thing remained constant: politicians had to say the same thing to everyone. Every statement was a public address.

That's all different now.

Everything you do online — what you search, what you “like” on Facebook, what you post on social media, where you go with your phone, what you buy, who you talk to — generates mountains of data, and that data has changed your position from an anonymous member of the general public to an individual with specific traits and characteristics. 

Death of the public square?

It’s nice to feel known, isn’t it? But here’s the rub: you are now an individual that can be targeted with ads and messages on social media that only you, or a small group of people like you, can see. In other words: advertisers can now microtarget you.

This means one group of people can get a message tailored just for them, and another group can get a different message altogether. Poof! That public square was just split in two.

It doesn’t stop there. How about 50,000 to 60,000 variations on a message per day? Brad Parscale, digital media director of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, said he sent out that many variations of ads on Facebook each day during the U.S. president’s campaign.

Multiply that figure by the number of days and months in a campaign, and all of a sudden that public square is fragmented even further.

These targeted messages could be small variations of the same statement or contradictory promises. But here’s the problem: citizens don’t know what is being said to others. This is why the practice is known as “dark advertising.” There’s no way to track all these different ads, although groups like Who Targets Me have advocated for just that — for big platform companies and election regulators to create permanent records that would hold campaigns accountable. 

Knowing you better than you know yourself

Dark advertising, again, is not a shot in the dark. They know you. Picture all those thousands of points of data that alone seem meaningless, but point by point, they slowly all add up, like a drawing or a pointillist painting, to a full portrait of you. (Ok, your five-year-old is definitely lost now.)

Microtargeting tracks your reactions to see what works — and in doing so, the people making these messages learn how to push your buttons. And which buttons do you think they’ll push: the ones that make you contemplative and calm, or angry and fearful?

Thousands of messages can be run and tested or “optimized” for reactions. There’s no “third-party advertiser” crafting edgy memes for maximum engagement and simply hoping for the best. It’s brute trial-and-error force over thousands and thousands of messages. Whatever works, wins.

In the case of YouTube, algorithms that reward clicks have led to, according to sociologist Zeynep Tufecki, a radicalization of users and hardening of political views.

In short, we’re not in Kansas, or Rome, or even around a fire anymore. Micro-targeting has ushered in a new era of political advertising.

It’s too early to tell what this means for the federal election. There’s been no evidence of, for example, contradictory messages sent out by the campaigns. But the technology to do so is there.

What do you think? As always, write to me at onpolitics@tvo.org.

That’s all for this week!

#onpoli producer 

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