The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook limits some political ad targeting, but impact is unlikely to be great

New rules will go into effect in January

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
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Facebook’s parent company, Meta, announced Tuesday that it will begin limiting how political and issue advertising can be targeted at its users, removing the ability in most cases to deliver ads to individuals based on what political, religious or health-related content they had accessed on the platform.

The move, however, leaves in place several of the advertising strategies often criticized as pernicious “microtargeting,” such as selecting “custom audiences” based on customer data or visits to a particular website, according to a blog post announcing the changes by Graham Mudd, the company’s vice president for marketing and ads.

The changes, which take effect in January, would in some cases prevent targeting based on interests Facebook users demonstrate on the platform, such as accessing content that suggests an interest in particular health issues, sexual orientation, religious practices or political causes. The blog post referred to these as “topics people may perceive as sensitive” and not appropriate as a source of advertising targeting.

A person who reads posts on lung cancer, for example, should no longer get targeted ads about “cancer awareness,” nor should a person who reads content about sexual orientation get targeted advertising about “same-sex marriage,” in two examples Mudd cited.

Critics say Facebook’s powerful ad tools may imperil democracy. But politicians love them.

Facebook’s own categorizations of user interests have sometimes been used as a proxy for racially targeted advertising. For example, Russia’s Internet Research Agency targeted Facebook users during the 2016 presidential election campaign who the company determined had displayed an interest in civil rights, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Those messages were intended to suppress turnout among Black voters.

Tuesday’s post also describes numerous ways advertisers can continue targeting groups of individuals so long as they visit an advertiser’s website or like its Facebook page. Targeting based on geographic location and customer data is explicitly allowed in many cases, the post says.

Maryland was never in play in 2016. The Russians targeted it anyway.

The issue of political microtargeting was hotly debated in advance of the 2020 presidential election, with President Donald Trump, fellow Republicans and some Democrats arguing that the ability to precisely target potential voters was essential to modern political campaigning and shouldn’t be limited. But disinformation researchers and some Democratic officials warned that the opportunity for manipulation and abuse was dangerously high when ads could be aimed at groups as small as 100 people.

Facebook decided after months of internal debate to continue allowing the practice despite a letter from employees to Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg warning that Facebook’s political ads policy “allows politicians to weaponize our platform.”

One critic of political microtargeting, former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos said after Tuesday’s announcement, “This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the political issues.” He is now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, a research group.