The 2022 Midterm Elections Are Putting Data Privacy at Risk
We all know, in theory, that we’re being tracked and targeted on a regular basis. My mother-in-law makes the same joke about her phone listening to her whenever she sees a particularly well-targeted ad. It seems like most of the public is OK with that—that’s just the cost of using Facebook, Google searches, or pretty much any other form of online engagement.
But there’s a disconnect. Most Americans, despite being aware of privacy concerns, perhaps aren’t bothered enough or, more likely, don’t really know how to do anything about it. Research shows that while 75% of Americans claim to be “very concerned” about data privacy, most have taken no action to make sure their personal data stays private.
We’ve come to a time, however, when data privacy is about more than just protecting our personal information. Now it’s about protecting our democracy. We now know exactly how the lack of data privacy allowed the microtargeting of consumers during previous elections and the dissemination of political misinformation.
Yet most voters don’t seem particularly worried about the same thing happening this time. This is despite the well-publicized testimony in Congress of former Facebook employees about this practice of unrestricted micro-targeting of consumers.
It’s clear that we need strong data privacy protections to have free and fair elections in a democracy. To me, it’s just as clear that we don’t have those protections in place.
In an ideal world, consumers would be their own privacy advocates. Tools exist today to help anyone live a more digitally private life, and to make their political decisions based on independent thought and research, not shady digital targeting. But thanks to a lack of understanding and deliberate obfuscation from giant data broker companies, most people don’t take those actions, or even know they exist.
Therefore, it’s time for federal and state laws to be updated to protect voters’ data privacy. Furthermore, just as political campaigns disclose their funding sources, data privacy protections must require the disclosure of how political candidates used data to target and classify voters.
How Do We Implement Voter Data Protection?
There are two steps to getting legislation like this in place. First, you need the political will to do it. That’s the hard part. But the second part is mechanical, setting up systems to collect and report these data disclosures. I don’t think it would be very hard. In fact, it might even be easier than the financial disclosures we require today.
At their core, political campaigns are marketing campaigns. You’re trying to communicate your message, i.e. the reason someone should vote for you, to your consumer, i.e. your voter. If you know anything about digital marketing platforms, you know these campaigns already have ways to track and report the kind of data we need.
For example, imagine you’re a local Wisconsin politician, and you want to target a specific voter segment using a tool like The Trade Desk, a digital marketing platform commonly shortened to TTD. TTD has a marketplace of segments you can browse and choose from. Say you select a segment like “moms in Wisconsin over the age of 40.”
With new data privacy regulations, your selection would be logged and reported. Voters will be able to see that you targeted them, and they’ll see how you did as well. This wouldn’t stop microtargeting, but it would give voters more knowledge about how they’re being microtargeted. In other words, transparency.
Shine a Light on Voter Targeting
What’s the point of greater transparency? Well, imagine for a moment a world in which finance contribution laws don’t exist. The world of political finance is murky enough already—there are entire organizations like ProPublica that dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to “following the money” on the campaign trail. But imagine how much worse it could be if there weren’t laws in place that force enormous corporations or wealthy individuals to disclose when they’re bankrolling candidates for their own gain.
Forcing data disclosure, in addition to financial disclosure,
would allow companies like ProPublica or independent journalists like Judd Legum to see and report on exactly what data was being used to target voters.
What would this look like? Imagine you’re that Wisconsinite mom over the age of 40. You keep getting these ads to support a radical candidate who wants to ban airplanes. The candidate puts some arguments forth that on the surface seem reasonable to you, and you find yourself somewhat persuaded. But then you learn this candidate targeted you based not on your age, location, or marital status, but rather on your proclivity for spending hours on Facebook each day reading about conspiracy theories.
Maybe you vote for that candidate anyway because that doesn’t bother you, and maybe you don’t because it feels invasive and creepy. But either way, ProPublica now has the visibility to get ahold of that information and publish an article about how Candidate X is actively targeting conspiracy theorists and Facebook addicts. It’s not a great look, and that might be enough to persuade swing voters that Candidate X is bad news.
Plus, this new transparency would lay the groundwork for even more protective data privacy laws in the future. It would offer proof that candidates were targeting prospective voters based on their tendency to, for example, believe misinformation rather than inform them about legitimate issues. I don’t know about you, but if I were in Congress, I would find it much easier to sign laws into being if someone could point to specific examples of candidates misusing personal data to influence elections, rather than just having a generic wish to make data more private.
It’s worth mentioning that some platforms like Facebook and Twitter ban political ads in the lead up to some elections. But candidates have already shifted their strategies in response to these restrictions. So political advertisers now post ads on streaming platforms. Plus, clever marketers are able to get around restrictions and post political ads that skirt around the limitations Twitter and Facebook impose, as Protocol reports.
The Bottom Line
The ability to micro-target voters is a powerful tool, and right now, there are no real restrictions to prevent that power from falling into the wrong hands. In a perfect world, more voters would be more privacy-conscious, and there would be legislation in place to restrict or outright ban this kind of data misuse. But in the meantime, forcing political candidates to disclose their use of data would be a significant step forward.
About the author: Timur Yarnall is the founder and CEO of Neutronian, a SaaS company that provides data quality and compliance verification services. Neutronian also developed the NQI Certification, a comprehensive data quality, compliance, and transparency certification, to bring more trust and transparency to the marketing industry.
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