Consider beefing up laws to curb microtargeting

PHOTO: AFP

It was alarming to read about the power of online political advertising (How data analytics is turned into a political tool; March 20).

And we in Singapore need to be concerned, too.

According to research house Statista, there were about 3.04 million Facebook users in Singapore last year.

That number is expected to hit 3.35 million by 2020, which is probably when the campaigning and rallies for the next general election will start.

Singapore, as a small nation, is not immune to microtargeting.

One of the definitions on the Internet of microtargeting describes it as a marketing strategy that uses consumer data and demographics to create audience subsets.

It is possible to predict the buying behaviour of these like-minded individuals, and to influence that behaviour through hyper-targeted advertising.

As campaigns harness ever more data, they get better at tailoring messages to specific groups of voters. Targeting different groups with different ads this way means that voters will not have all the necessary facts to make an informed decision about which box to put their "X" in. It can also sway undecided citizens to vote a certain way.

Microtargeting is thus a highly effective political campaign tactic.

Such individualised advertisements can be used not just for gaining a vote - they can also push a point of view.

If this happens in Singapore, it can change the Government's course.

Singapore should consider strict legislation to regulate how Facebook users' data is used, because as campaigns harness ever more data, they get better at tailoring messages to specific groups of voters.

Targeting different groups with different ads this way means that voters will not have all the necessary facts to make an informed decision about which box to put their "X" in. It can also sway undecided citizens to vote a certain way.

Singapore needs to examine this phenomenon and its implications to see if our laws on data protection and election campaigns need to be tightened further.

Cheng Choon Fei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2018, with the headline 'Consider beefing up laws to curb microtargeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe