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Facebook privacy drive seen crimping political campaigns

Washington

FACEBOOK'S new focus on protecting private user data is likely to change the game for many campaigns, making it harder to deliver highly targeted, personal political messages.

The changes unveiled by the huge social network following an outcry over the hijacking of data on 87 million Facebook members by Cambridge Analytica could be significant for campaigns. The new privacy effort could limit "microtargeting" using the social network, a technique used successfully by Donald Trump's campaign in 2016 and others.

"Microtargeting is a big deal for campaigns, because they have to decide how they spend money and who they target," said Joseph Hall, chief technologist for the Center For Democracy & Technology. He is leading a research project on election privacy and security. "Any clamping down on data collection is going to have a large effect on campaigns."

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Microtargeting is not new - marketing specialists used public records before the Internet era - but the trove of data from social networks, often combined with that of data brokers, has made it easier to identify population segments based on income, political affiliation and other factors.

Mr Hall said that if Facebook clamps down on its user data to campaigns, "they won't be able to target on a granular basis". He added: "That's not a bad thing, but campaigns hate it because it costs more money."

Campaign consultants note that Facebook is not a source of voter data - with the major exception of Cambridge Analytica - but instead a targeting tool for ads based on data collected from other sources.

Facebook appears to be making it harder to use software tools to automatically match members of the social network with other affiliations.

"I can target women between the ages of 21 and 35 who like Planned Parenthood, but I can't target Mary Smith," said one Democratic political operative who asked to remain anonymous. "It's not clear if we'll be able to target voters as accurately and cheaply as in recent years."

Even with a stricter privacy envi-ronment, digital is expected to account for 20.1 per cent of the US$8.8 billion spent this year in the US on congressional and state election ads, according to the consulting firm Borrell Associates. That compares with less than one per cent in the 2014 elections, according to Borrell.

But it's down slightly from an estimate earlier this year, the firm said, because of "shyness about Facebook use following the Cambridge Analytica scandal". Facebook has announced that it would verify the identities of anyone placing political ads on its platform and follow procedures in a bill called the "Honest Ads Act" for labelling of candidate messages.

It remains unclear how Facebook will adapt new EU privacy rules for the US market, such as the ability to easily opt out of targeted ads. "I think Facebook will provide as much incentive to opt in as possible," said Mark Jablonowski, chief technical officer of DSPolitical, an ad tech firm that works with Democratic candidates.

"If Facebook users do opt out (in large numbers) that would have a major impact on Facebook revenue and targeting capabilities. It would have fairly far-reaching implications for the whole advertising industry." AFP