How politicians are targeting ads with unprecedented precision

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Political campaigns are now trying to swing elections in their favor by using data people may not know they’re providing. It’s part of a new trend using hyper-targeted messages that are based on a person’s internet activity.

People get all kinds of ads during the election cycle. This year, they’re getting more specific. Everything posted on websites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit is now being analyzed by humans and machines. With more than 312 million internet users in the United States, it’s a never-ending stream of data to be mined.

“We look for words like candidates’ names or certain issues like COVID,” said Adam Meldrum, the founder of AdVictory. “We start to group those things together and score the data for things like sentiment, word frequency, (and) positive and negative attitudes about how people talk about things.”

Meldrum’s company is pioneering the use of analyzing publicly available social media data to help politicians better target their messages.

“This isn’t meant to replace polling. It’s meant to be a compliment alongside it,” he said. 

The process uses a combination of artificial intelligence and human analysis of what a person has publicly posted to find out what messages they want to hear.

“It sparks a way to phrase a certain message where the messaging is better with people out there than (if it was) from a bunch of consultants in a room trying to come up with something,” Meldrum said.

Concern over hyper-targeting prompted Google to establish some rules about how its platforms are used. Google mandated that:

  • Political advertisers will only be able to reach people based on broad categories like age, gender, or zip code
  • Specific data, including public voter records or political leanings, are off-limits

The policy that applies to ads shown on Google’s search engine and YouTube, but it doesn’t stop candidates from hyper-targeting mailed brochures, TV and radio ads, and other social media platforms.

“You have to look at these free tools you are using as a consumer to post and communicate and understanding there is a reason it’s free,” Meldrum said. “There’s a reason people find value in the data, and hopefully there’s personal accountability in that as people engage with it.”

Although this is the first election cycle in which this analytical technology being used, Meldrum said to expect to see more of it in 2022 as people dig even deeper into posts. He said the use of this technology is increasing exponentially and will grow in sophistication as artificial intelligence and analysts learn from their mistakes this time around.

Anyone worried about the trend should limit what they say online.

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