Candidates Won't Hesitate to Use Manipulative Advertising to Score Votes

Advertising in the 2016 election is going to be highly personalized, targeting voters’ personal information to sway their decisions

This presidential election, prepare to be manipulated.

In politics, as in the marketplace, you are the consumer. But you only have one vote to “spend” per election, and in November you’ll almost always only have two possible candidates on which to spend it.

In every election, both of those candidates are going to pull every trick in the surveillance-driven, highly personalized internet advertising world to get you to vote for them. Or, if they think you’ll vote for the other candidate, to stay home and not vote.

In 2012, Barack Obama deftly used both social media and his own database of supporters to outmaneuver Mitt Romney, spending $47m on social media advertising—10 times more than his challenger. The Republicans have learned from that race, and are now just as sophisticated.

Over the past eight years, everyone has learned from the latest research in advertising manipulation. Their data can better determine your political affiliation, and level of engagement, than ever before. You’ll see personalized ads precisely targeted to your interests and opinions, based on the things you’ve written and articles you’ve read.

There are hundreds of companies that collect data about you and your behavior, online and offline, primarily for advertising purposes. Those companies categorize you by dozens of different variables and sell your information to companies that want to sell things to you. This is why searching for a Hawaiian vacation results in ads for those vacations on site after site, and why a clothing item you purchase follows you around on internet banner ads for days.

This year, both parties are going to spend more money on personalized advertising, and they’re going to spend it more effectively. Candidates are going to take their own data and their party’s data and correlate with additional data they buy.

They’re going to know where you live and where you work, and persuade you to attend local events. They’re going to attempt to manipulate you into sharing, liking and retweeting their messages. And they’re going to do everything they can to make sure you vote for them.

Already we’ve seen one skirmish surrounding voter information: Bernie Sanders’s campaign improperly accessed Hillary Clinton’s supporters from the Democrats’ master database.

During the 2012 election, Facebook ran an experiment in voter manipulation. Users were able to post an “I Voted” icon, much like the real stickers many of us get at polling places after voting. What Facebook did was randomly manipulate who could see that icon. They found that there was a bandwagon effect with respect to voting: you are more likely to vote if you believe your friends are voting. In Facebook’s experiment, this manipulation had the effect of increasing voter turnout 0.14%—enough to sway a close election.

Every candidate’s goal is, essentially, to selectively manipulate the visibility of that icon. They’re going to want to make sure their supporters see the icon a lot, and that the supporters of every other candidate don’t see it at all. Similarly, they are going to want to buy advertising space on Google to display positive links for themselves and negative links for their rivals.

Research also shows that public pressure and even shame increases voter turnout. One 2006 study in Michigan showed an 8% increase. Last week Ted Cruz sent Iowa supporters a “report card” on their voting record, hoping to shame them into action. He got bad press for it, but it was undoubtedly effective.

There are even more manipulative techniques. Multiple new studies show that we are more receptive to an advertising message if it’s delivered by someone who looks like us. Already some advertisements are produced in multiple versions, with people of different ethnicities, genders and ages, for use in different markets; it’s not uncommon in the Asian market. Tagged image databases will allow advertisers to go much further on the internet, creating an individualized image by automatically morph an image of you with another image. You won’t consciously recognize the image, but you will trust that face more. Will some candidate do this? Sooner or later, probably.

Everyone expects the 2016 presidential election to be fought on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’ll be highly personalized, and it’ll be very manipulative.

Recognize it when it happens. It’s your best defense against being manipulated. After all, you want to vote for the candidates you think are best for the country; not the ones with the most effective psychological tricks.

Categories: Elections, Internet and Society, Privacy and Surveillance

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.