Partner Series

Just as companies target Internet users for their money, political campaigns can now target citizens for their votes. 

ProPublica has been reporting on this trend over the past month. Today (June 27), MIT's Technology Review published a story in which they talked with the companies that sell voter registration data to campaigns for super-targeted political ads. 

Portions of voter files are publicly available and may contain people's party registrations, voting history and charitable donations. Companies such as Audience Partners and Aristotle International match those offline records with the accounts people make when they sign up for websites that require registration. Political campaigns can then use cookies, which are pieces of computer code that follow people's actions online, to show different Web users different ads, depending on their voting information, age, hobbies, income and other data that's bought and sold by data companies.

Technology Review gave an example of the level of detail political campaigns may use:

A political campaign can use cookies to serve specific ads to, for example, all registered 50- to 60-year-old male Democrats in Pennsylvania's 6th district who are frequent voters and care about the environment. A campaign could even see whether specific individuals click on the ad and what they do once on its landing page. 

Audience Partners told Technology Review that it can reach 130 million registered U.S. voters, or about 80 percent of voters in the country. Most major campaigns this year will use cookies to create political ads, John Phillips, Aristotle International's CEO, told Technology Review.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called the targeting "antithetical to the democratic process." He thought the targeting would increase the number of misleading ads. The increasing number of different ads, each tailored to a specific group, will also make it difficult for news media to check if statements in ads are true.

Chester advocates for campaigns to explicitly ask Internet users for permission to show them targeted political ads, and for Congress or the Federal Election Commission to regulate political targeting. 

For better or for worse, the way political campaigns influence people is fundamentally changing, Phillips told Technology review. 

Source: Technology Review

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.