Ridout’s article, while written in 2012, only covers advertising practices through the 2008 election. Another presidential election has gone by, and we are in the midst of a congressional election. In the six years since President Obama was first elected, micro targeting has evolved and progressed into a new kind of political machine.
This article from the Huffington Post looks specifically at how campaigns for the 2012 election get the data that they use for micro targeting ads. It describes a system where campaigns try to lock in curiosity and turn it into a political stance. Want to see what Obama has been up to by checking out his YouTube channel? Then also be prepared to see his ads every time you try to watch a music video. It’s an efficient way to grab the people who are already leaning your way. And microtargeting isn’t just used to sway voters – it’s also being used for GOTV.
This video from PBS explains just how micro targeting works – featuring one of the authors from the Ridout article, Ken Goldstein:
For the younger generations, these micro targeted online ads may be the biggest source of exposure to the campaigns. And as the Ridout article pointed out, the one-sided nature of micro targeting means that more people are only being exposed to one side of an issue. In a democracy that is supposed to operate through an active, involved debate between the two parties, the increasing use of micro targeted ads may only further the increasing partisanship. Extreme partisanship can spread beyond elected officials to the citizenry – and that is extremely problematic for our nation’s political health.
Despite the unrealistic idealism in Habermas’ normative view of democracy, an informed and rational debate is still needed to make good policy that the populace supports. In an age where people can choose their own media and read only from partisan news sources that they agree with, being exposed only to advertisements that they agree with only compounds the problem. Where do people get both sides, without actively seeking it out?
When we resign ourselves to the idea that a person’s political opinions are unchangeable, that a vague interest or leaning can be locked in and considered as good as a committed vote, then we are also giving up on the idea of a working democracy. We need debates, we need to be exposed to both campaigns arguments, if only so that when the other guy gets elected, working across the table isn’t considered unthinkable.
In short, micro targeting in political advertising may be more monetarily efficient for campaigns, but it is not healthy for when elected officials have to create and enact policy after the election.
Travis N. Ridout, Michael Franz, Kenneth M. Goldstein & William J. Feltus (2012): Separation by Television Program: Understanding the Targeting of Political Advertising in Presidential Elections, Political Communication, 29:1, 1-23
Lavender, Paige. “2012 Election: Campaigns Mine Online Data To Target Voters.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 May 2012. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.