Marco Rubio hopes to convert voters interested in Chick-fil-A, Ram trucks and Duck Dynasty. John Fetterman is looking for fans of microbreweries, Teslas and the Dave Matthews Band.
And Michael Bennett wants to reach the likes of Taylor Swift and Lizzo while avoiding Jason Aldean’s passionate audience.
Candidates in high-profile races are using Facebook and Instagram to target ads to voters based on their music tastes, sports fans, shopping destinations and television habits, a CNN review of data from the social media platforms has found.
The data, which Meta has begun reporting on parent company Facebook in recent months, reflects how political campaigns are slicing and dicing online constituencies based on very specific interests. And it’s a sign that as America becomes more politically polarized, candidates are using cultural icons as proxies for policy.
“There are very few things in American culture, whether it’s media organizations or music groups or brands, that don’t have some sort of political association,” said University of Texas at Austin professor Samuel Woolley, who directs the school’s Propaganda Research Lab. “Political campaigns are using that to their advantage.”
This is done through a service that Tactics Meta calls “Exact Specification”. It allows political campaigns and other advertisers to show their ads to people who share specific interests, or to ensure that ads are not shown to people who are interested in certain topics. Facebook determines whether a user is interested in a topic based on the ads they click on and the pages they engage with, according to the company.
It has long been common practice for political campaigns to use this interest-based targeting for Facebook ads. But earlier this year, Meta blocked advertisers from targeting users based on their interests in social issues, causes or political figures, saying it was removing options for “topics that people might find sensitive.” The amendment removed the ability to target ads to people interested in climate change or Second Amendment rights, or to former presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump, for example.
In response to this shift, political strategists say, campaigns are turning to pop culture as a substitute for politics when trying to reach certain groups of voters.
“We need to do more research and understand who those audiences are — what kind of music they’re listening to, what kind of TV shows they’re watching,” said Eric Reif, an executive at the Democratic political firm Blue. state That could include commercial data, survey research or data from Spotify or streaming video platforms, he said.
Overall, the 20 most competitive Democratic candidates in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races used Facebook and Instagram ads far more than their opponents, spending more than $4 million on the platforms between mid-August and mid-September, compared with about $645,000 for Democrats. the republicans
In the 20 races analyzed by CNN for that time period, nearly all Democratic campaigns ran at least some ads targeting users with specific interests, while fewer Republicans ran them. Many candidates post hundreds of ads on Facebook each month, often with different content, and the data doesn’t show which individual ads are targeting which interest groups. This makes it difficult to tell how the campaigns are tailoring their arguments to different groups of voters.
But many of the campaign’s most common targets are brands that are stereotypical proxies for political leanings: several Democrats targeted people interested in NPR and Whole Foods, while NASCAR and Cracker Barrel were popular choices for the GOP.
North Carolina’s Senate race offers perhaps the greatest contrast in goals. Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley targeted interested users on PBS and the New York Times Book Review, while Republican Rep. Ted Budd targeted Barstool Sports and the Hallmark Channel. Beasley excluded musician Ted Nugent or podcaster Joe Rogan from viewing some of his ads, and Budd specifically targeted ads aimed at fans of both men.
Rogan, a well-known controversial figure on the right, drew more attention from Facebook ad-targeting campaigns than any other issue of interest during the period covered by CNN. All nine Democratic campaigns excluded those interested in Rogan from receiving some of their ads.
But in a sign that he’s reaching out to non-traditional voters, Fetterman, a Democratic Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, took the opposite approach, with his campaign targeting Rogan fans in particular. (Beto O’Rourke, the party’s candidate for governor of Texas, also ran some ads targeting Rogan’s stakeholders, along with other ads that they left out.)
Megan Clasen, a partner at the Democratic political firm Gambit Strategies, said that, more broadly, interest-based targeting is most effective for candidates trying to reach people they already support.
“It works really well for a fundraising or list-building campaign where you’re really trying to reach a smaller audience,” said Clasen, who is working on multiple midterm races. “But when we’re trying to convince voters, we don’t want to exclude too many people and leave votes on the table.”
The targeting data shows a mixed view. Rubio, Florida’s senior senator, has been one of the GOP’s most active users of interest-based targeting: More than 85 percent of the Republican’s Facebook ad spending was for ads targeting users interested in a long list of topics, from college football to deer hunting. to Southern Living magazine.
A number of ads from Bennet, the Democratic senator representing Colorado, specifically resonated with constituents’ playlists. His campaign has targeted people interested in Swift, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, while excluding those interested in country singer Aldean. The Bennet campaign also targeted fans of Reggaeton and Latin pop music — as well as more general themes like “Spain,” “Mexican culture” and “Latin American cuisine” — in an ostensible bid for Latino voters. (Bennett’s campaign did not address how it targets ads compared to the senator’s musical tastes.)
The other candidates’ goals seemed more mind-boggling. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign prevented some of her ads from being shown to interested parties on Saturday Night Live or former cast member Kate McKinnon. O’Rourke’s ads targeted those with a diverse list of interests, from BirdWatching magazine to One Direction to “drink water.”
Meta does not allow candidates to target users based on their race or ethnicity, but they are allowed to target users based on gender, age, and location. Several Democratic candidates, including Govs. Nevada’s Steve Sisola, Wisconsin’s Tony Evers and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer have targeted a significant portion of their ads specifically to women.
And Fetterman, who has repeatedly frustrated his opponent Mehmet Oz for his previous seat in New Jersey, used targeting to exclude people in the Garden State from receiving his few ads.
Facebook’s interest-based targeting isn’t unique; It’s part of a larger trend in the political campaign industry to target increasingly specific groups of voters. Meta campaigns, for example, allow you to upload lists of phone numbers or email addresses of specific people who want to see their ads. And new technologies target ads across video and other platforms based on specific geographic and demographic data; therefore, even neighbors watching the same show may see different political messages.
Experts said using this type of targeting raised important questions about data privacy and user consent. Woolley, the UT-Austin researcher, argued that Meta should place even more restrictions on the campaigns targeting users.
“People’s data is being used without their consent to get into a box and try to manipulate them, not just to buy something, but to get them to vote for a particular person or change their beliefs about a particular issue,” Woolley said. “People have a reasonable expectation of being able to participate in specific interests without being inadvertently targeted by political campaigns.”
Users can change their Facebook settings to opt out of interest-based targeting for individual topics. But most people probably don’t realize they’re seeing some political ideas because of their interest in a band or TV show, Woolley points out.
And Damon McCoy, a professor at New York University associated with the research group Cybersecurity for Democracy, said campaigns were using interest-based targeting “as a proxy for targeting a specific demographic that Facebook expressly forbids targeting,” such as race or ethnicity, essentially. platform rules slot.
Meta spokeswoman Ashley Settle said in a statement that the company constantly updates and removes targeting options to improve the advertising experience and reduce the potential for abuse.
“We want to connect people with the candidates and issues they care about, while also giving them control over the ads they see,” Settle said. “That’s why we give people the option to hide ads from advertisers or choose to see fewer ads about certain topics, like politics.”
A key reason why interest-based targeting has been successful for political campaigns is that the U.S. is politically polarized, and many of the cultural indicators associated with political leanings may not have been a few decades ago, experts say. Even some strategists who use social media targeting admit they are concerned about what the tactic says about American culture.
“It’s certainly troubling that people are so polarized now that you can tell a lot about someone’s lifestyle by being a Democrat or a Republican,” Clasen said.
To see which interests advertisers can use to target you, go to Facebook’s ad topics settings page (only available while you’re signed in). You can choose to “see less” of ads related to specific goals, which prevents advertisers from targeting you based on that interest. Click the “…” in the top right corner of any Facebook ad and click “Why am I seeing this ad?” you can select to learn about the targeting information of the individual ads that are displayed to you.