Why it’s so important to know who is targeting you online – Sam Jeffers, Co-founder of Who Targets Me

High levels of spending on political advertising that target individuals and small groups of individuals via social media have been a major feature of recent election campaigns. This trend for political parties to use highly personalised digital campaigning via social media -with low levels of transparency- was the reason why ‘Who Targets Me’ is being supported by Civitates.

Sam Jeffers co-founded ‘Who Targets Me’, a project aiming to encourage individuals to critically think about the online campaigning material they see.

Can you explain what ‘Who Targets Me’ is about?
Direct political advertising from a political party to the individual on social media tends to be more negative and emotional than traditional political advertising campaigns. The more traditional advertisement methods need to meet certain conditions with regard to -amongst others- transparency. Social media campaigns however, do hardly make visible how much money is being spent on adverts or what targeting is being used to reach voters.A relatively recent development is that Facebook now publishes data on how much a political party has spent on particular advertisements within 48 hours of the advert being posted.

How can people find information about the strategies that political parties use?
Our project team has produced software to enable individuals to understand more about the paid media that they are being targeted with. It gives them the tools to think about who is behind an advertisement (i.e. who has paid for the advertisement?) and how a message might be tailored to their own views. Once a person has installed the free extension on his or her browser, they can build up a picture of how they are being targeted on Facebook. The software shows a library of all political ads sent to them and data on who is showing them the most advertisements. The software is available in all EU languages and identifies ads from the Facebook pages of all major political parties in the EU.

And what is the advantage of being able to do this?
If an individual knows that a lot of money was spent on a lot of ads, they may start asking important questions such as ‘who is donating the money’?A further benefit for democracy is that, by installing the software, individuals contribute to a wider data set that researchers can use as evidence for regulators and policymakers. Targeted political advertising on social media is a very underregulated area, with virtually no updates having been made to the law to account for digital age campaigning. More data sets could help regulators come up with ideas on how to better monitor and regulate the use of the internet in political campaigns. The ‘Who Targets Me’ project is all about helping individuals understand this targeting process and raising key questions that are of benefit for them and for a healthy, democratic and transparent society.

How did you get involved in this work?
I used to work on political campaigns, campaigns that favoured grassroots, bottom-up campaigning. But that started to change around 2015, when parties and candidates began to use social media ads to target small groups of voters with large quantities of tailored messaging. We started Who Targets Me to try and explain what was being done and why, how to cover modern digital campaigns and fight for updates to electoral law that will help ensure campaigns are fought fairly.

What is your dream with regard to online political campaigns?
My dream is that last point – a very democratic ideal, where people are presented with high quality, trustworthy information, debate and deliberate before they decide, then cast a vote based on their judgement.