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Dan Gauss

I recently had an internship assignment to research the possibility of Facebook advertising for one of our clients. What I uncovered was a highly targeted advertising structure designed to show messages to users that are most likely to engage with them. This approach of showing people what they want minimizes cognitive dissonance and is common throughout online advertising. The main advantage facebook has in comparison to other digital advertising solutions (ex. google, based on browsing habits), is that rather than making inferences about users, Facebook has explicit statements of interest from user profiles.

This hyper-targeted, show-people-what-they-want advertising climate made me think of our class reading “Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship,” by Philip Howard. He argues that the targeted messaging from campaigns enabled by new media and digital technologies has a detrimental effect on overall political discourse. Specifically, he argues that targeted messaging leads to a fragmentation of the public sphere.

Howard makes a valid point, and a deeper look into Facebook’s advertising system backs this up.

As we all know, Facebook has an incredible amount of personal information about its members and uses this to deliver highly-targeted audiences to advertisers based on specific sets of characteristics. In fact, facebook advertisers can select to filter their target audience using more than 15 categories, such as location, education, language, interests and connections.

This type of targeting is extremely appealing to political campaigns, as they can not only tap into their own databases (ex. Blue State digital), they are now harnessing the power of Facebook’s data pools as well. Take geographic location, where Facebook can target as specifically as zip code. If a campaign’s records show that a district with many friendly voters may have low voter turnout, they can use facebook to target certain districts and polling stations with tailored messaging. Now, let’s go a step further and assume that this campaign has other demographic information on likely-sympathetic voters. By filtering their audience further, by gender or age, campaigns can send a get-out-the-vote message to key locations and the ‘right’ people.

This type of control and targeting is exactly what Howard is referring to when discussing the fragmentation of the public sphere. That while there are more political messages over more mediums, these do not enhance political conversation- the messages go to those with already similarly held beliefs and do not stimulate new debate, rather, they simply reinforce existing views.

in addition to campaign’s preferences to target specific messages, Facebook’s pricing structure drives this as well. Billing is set up on either a cost-per-click or a cost-per-impressions basis. In 2011, 83% of all advertisers used cost-per-click billing. Therefore, it is in Facebook’s best interest to drive engagement as fast as possible in order to show more ads and collect more revenue. It drives engagement by showing messages to already receptive audiences.

Facebook’s ad business is geared towards what it profitable. Rapid engagement is profitable and is achieved through delivering messages to receptive audiences. Therefore, what is profitable for Facebook is what Howard identifies as the way new media and digital technology contribute to a more fragmented political discourse.

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