Facebook wins over presidential hopefuls

One tool allows a campaign to directly upload its voter file, so that it can target those users

Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker is interviewed during a campaign stop at the famed Billy Goat Tavern on July 27, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.
Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker is interviewed during a campaign stop at the famed Billy Goat Tavern on July 27, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • When Governor Scott Walker kicked off his presidential bid this month, supporters who visited his website could view photographs of him, peruse his announcement speech, and read about the Wisconsin Republican's life and accomplishments.

Using a bit of code embedded on its website, the Walker team was able to track who visited the donation page, tell which potential backers shared interests with existing supporters, and determine who was learning about the candidate for the first time.

It could then use that information to target prospective voters with highly personalised appeals. Those supporters who had already given money, for instance, were served an ad seeking another donation.

But new supporters received a more modest request: to provide their e-mail address or to click on a link to the campaign's online store.

While it is no surprise that campaigns are devoting a greater share of their budget and energy on digital initiatives, Facebook, already a major player in past cycles, has been working to expand its digital dominance in the political realm.

Facebook - which has 189 million monthly users in the United States - has pitched its tools and services to every presidential campaign in the 2016 race. Some estimate that 2016 will usher in roughly US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) in online political advertising, and Facebook says it is on track to increase its revenue from previous cycles.

"Facebook is going to be the advertising monster of 2016," said Mr Zac Moffatt, a co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican technology firm that ran Mr Mitt Romney's 2012 digital effort. "They have the largest audience, a dominant set of tools for advertising, and the most aggressive approach to allowing campaigns to leverage their data to maximise efficiency and minimise waste."

Campaigns can now include what Facebook describes as a "call to action" at the end of their videos - in most cases, a link that allows users to donate to the campaign or sign a petition. When Facebook announced its new video capacities last September, it had one billion video views a day. Now, the site gets four times as many.

Another innovation allows a campaign to upload its voter file - a list of those they hope will turn out to vote or can be persuaded to do so - directly to Facebook, where it can target those users.

Integrating this deep and rich source of information about voters also allows campaigns to find and reach other Facebook users who resemble, in behaviour and interests, those in their existing voter file.

The emphasis on reaching increasingly segmented voters reflects the narrowing of the electorate, in which campaigns are devoting more money and effort to finding their supporters and turning them out on election day, rather than winning over uncommitted voters.

But the practice also raises potential privacy concerns. "I think most users really have no idea how much information Facebook collects about them or how Facebook is able to infer from even a post to a friend what their political orientation might be," said Mr Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, a privacy rights group. "If you're a Facebook user, Facebook knows everything you've said, everything you've posted, everything you've clicked on."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2015, with the headline 'Facebook wins over presidential hopefuls'. Print Edition | Subscribe