Russian-Linked Facebook Ad Scandal Shows Just How Intricate Targeting Can Be
The growing evidence of a politically weaponized Facebook advertising campaign backed by Russia underscores the uncanny precision of ad targeting.
If you've been paying attention to the most recent news cycle, you're probably aware that there have been some new developments in the Russian-election allegations.
In early September, Facebook reported that it conducted an internal investigation and discovered that groups with Russian ties had spent roughly $100,000 on ads designed to influence U.S. voters throughout the last presidential campaign. Now, sources have told the Washington Post that Facebook will turn over some 3,000-plus Russian-bought ads to Congress for an official review.
While the geo-political world is interested in who purchased these ads, what the intent was, and how they may have impacted election results, this shocking revelation also has the effect of showing the general public what savvy entrepreneurs and digital marketers already know: ad targeting is highly effective.
So, what exactly did Russian operatives do?
At this point, it's important that we avoid jumping to conclusions or making claims that aren't supported by facts. However, it appears that Russian operatives (not necessarily within the government) spent approximately $100,000 on roughly 3,000 Facebook ads from June 2015 through May 2017.
Early reports suggest that the ads were designed, purchased, and executed in an effort to exploit hot-button issues – such as Black Lives Matter, radical Islam, LGBT rights, immigration, and gun rights. It appears that the goal was to suppress voters from showing up to the polls on Election Day, rather than driving incensed Americans to vote.
"Their aim was to sow chaos," Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Washington Post. "In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout."
It's one thing to publish ads about a particular topic or stance. It's another entirely to systematically deploy these ads to reach a very specific demographic of people who are likely to be swayed by their content. How was this possible? In this case, it was all about in-depth ad targeting.
Understanding the intricacy of Facebook ad targeting.
Try to remove your political feelings for a moment and instead look at things from a pure marketing perspective. When you analyze the current technologies and platforms that are available, it's absolutely astonishing how intricate and in-depth you can get with Facebook ads.
If you've never spent time on Facebook's ad platform, you'd be amazed to know all of the targeting capabilities that exist. Not only can advertisers create audiences that fit a very specific set of criteria, but they can also create lookalike audiences that are similar to these groups. Here are just a few of the targeting options that exist:
Location. Countries, regions, states, counties, zip codes…there are location-based targeting options for everything. You can even reach out to people who recently traveled to a specific location.
Education. From education level (high school, college, master's, etc.) to the specific school and field of study, there are options for targeting based on education.
Politics. Extremely relevant within the context of this issue, the political beliefs of users can also be analyzed and targeted. Not only does this include party affiliation, but there are also ways to reach people who are more likely to engage in political discussions and debates.
Life events. Looking for people who recently got married? Have an upcoming birthday? Just accepted a new job? Life event targeting features are quite helpful.
Interests. Club memberships, group affiliations, activities and hobbies, political causes, interest in social issues – all of these things can be targeted within the Facebook advertising platform.
Remarketing. If someone recently clicked on one of your ads, you can remarket the same ad (or similar ones) to them again.Anyone with the money to purchase an ad that adheres to Facebook's rules and requirements can disseminate content to any micro-audience they please. This is something savvy digital marketers have long realized, but the general public is only just now discovering.
Don't underestimate the power of audience targeting.
Here's the thing: The Russia-Facebook advertising scandal that's beginning to unfold isn't a strike against the social media giant (or anyone other than the perpetrators, for that matter). As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a New York Times op-ed just a few days ago, this is just the nature of the digital world we live in today.
"The trouble is Facebook's business model is structurally identical whether advertisers are selling shoes, politics or fake diet pills, and whether they're going after new moms, dog lovers or neo-Nazis," Tufekci writes. "The algorithms don't know the difference, and Facebook's customers are not its users."
If, as allegations from Facebook and others close to this scandal claim, Russian operatives were able to influence the election turnout with targeted social media advertisements, then there's no denying the power and reach of ad targeting. Just as it can be used for manipulation and evil, it can also be used for good.
As a digital marketer, entrepreneur, or business owner, it would behoove you to learn more about ad targeting and how it can help you increase brand exposure, procure web traffic, and drive conversions.
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