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Why Facebook's Micro-Targeting Countermeasures Don't Matter

The real power is in the 'lookalike' audience

I've spilled much ink, not to mention radio air time, on Facebook’s critical role in the 2016 Presidential election, but it was not until this week, in lieu of it's own recent discoveries of Russian interference plus the headline-grabbing report that it was possible to reach FB users using criteria like "Jew hater" and "Nazi Party."

Although we are still unraveling the tangled knot of last year's election, it is imperative that concerned citizens around the world follow these revelations carefully because the US was a mere proving ground. The results of Russian meddling will likely serve as a playbook for anyone looking to manipulate an electorate.

North Korea could do it to South Korea.

Russia could do it to Japan.

Etc., etc., etc.

The big recent news was FB revealing that a Russian company had purchased pro-Trump advertisements on it’s platform. $150,000 worth of ads doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you understand how the FB ads platform works (part of the allure of it is it is cheap!) that kind of money could have a similar effect  as spending ten million dollars on a Super Bowl ad.

Allow me to explain: your Superbowl ad goes out to everyone watching. The vast majority of the people that enjoy your ad may NEVER purchase your product or service even if the was the most amazing advertisement of all time.

FB, on the other hand, allows you to target ONLY the people you think are most likely to buy your product. These are people that may only need a nudge or the right pitch.

To understand how ineffective FB's specific countermeasures will be, it is useful to know how micro-targeting works to begin with:

Let's say you have a small store selling nothing but cute animal print socks in Springfield, MO. If you wanted to run some FB ads, there are a few ways you could specifically target your ads to get started:

  • Everyone that lives in Springfield
  • People working in the fashion industry
  • People working in animal rights activism
  • Women with young children

In reality, you would likely try to 'profile' your ideal customer a bit more by compounding your targeting like so:

  • Women with young children living in Springfield
  • Women with young children in Springfield working in fashion
  • Women with young children in Springfield working in fashion and interested in animal rights

It does take a degree of finesse to get the targeting correct, because if your targeting is too narrow, FB will not run your ads.

Facebook's Ineffective Microtargeting Countermeasures

To cut down on what FB vaguely calls the “abuse” of it’s targeting, it has temporarily removed a few categories from it’s targeting

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Job title
  • Field of Study

Oddly, these areas were not even the problematic ones. It was being able to target certain “interest areas” that were causing the most problems. Things like “Nazi Party," “Hitler did nothing wrong," and "Jew Hater,” being the more sensational examples.

Here's the thing...

This level of targeting is really only the surface-level capabilities of the system. The real power is in what is called a ‘lookalike audience.’

Going back to your theoretical cute animal print socks store, the FB system, using a line of code that you can install on your website called the 'pixel,' remembers who performed certain items on your website like 'add to cart,' or visited the page with business hours information.

Once the 'pixel' has data on about 10-20 clicks, which is really quite small (although it is considered a best practice to wait until you get about 100), you can then use FB's powerful AI to create what is called a 'lookalike audience.' A lookalike audience is created by analyzing what FB knows about it's userbase, including geographic and psychographic information derived from EVERYTHING a user does on it's system.

Herein lies the true power of Facebook's marketing ecosystem, and one that is central to its business model. Without it, Facebook can not make money. If Facebook is not making money, it ceases to exist.

The Hard Questions

Is Facebook here to stay?

Is it, overall, a force for good?

What if it is not even possible for it to find effective countermeasures against actors trying to spread lies and manipulate the citizens of ANY democracy?

Your guess is as good as mind. My hunch is that the easier solution will ultimately be for all of us, as users and consumers of information, to become smarter about how we engage with social media. The good news is that I do think this is already happening, albeit slowly.