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Russia’s Facebook ads show how Internet microtargeting can be weaponized

With the advent of social media networks like Facebook, the art of advertisement has transformed substantially. Large social media networks are able to collect personal information from each of their users, then sell the information to advertisers so that they can target specific groups differently. This is known as microtargeting. However, recent revelations about Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election demonstrate how microtargeting can potentially be abused to influence the political sentiment of millions in another nation. In particular, Facebook revealed that in 2016, it unwittingly sold advertising capabilities to a Russian-based troll farm, which then targeted millions of Americans with the intention to shift their political views. But this isn’t the only example of microtargeting being used in a disturbing manner. Apparently, Facebook gave advertisers the opportunity to target specific groups such as “ethnic affinity groups” and “jew haters”, and the Trump campaign released politically charged advertisements solely targeting African Americans to influence their vote before the election. As a result of this, Facebook is taking measures to make its users more aware about why they are being targeted for the ads that they see.

In a sense, advertisers that employ microtargeting are often exploiting information cascades. When an advertiser targets a certain group, it’s likely that the group is part of a more closely-knit social network than the network of the entire population, since there are similarities between each person in the group. Thus, if misinformation is propagated through advertisements to a small part of a group, it’s likely that others in the group that hadn’t been targeted will still be potentially influenced, simply by association. This is especially true for the politically charged advertisements of the Russian operatives and the Trump administration, since such topics are more likely to be discussed among people of the same group. Thus, if advertisers target millions of voters via social media outlets, there’s no telling how many others could be affected. As stated in the textbook, information cascading doesn’t necessarily have desired results. The fact that the effect can be used by advertisers to manipulate large portions of the population, unbeknownst to those they’re targeting, is a clear example of this. The textbook also stated that information cascading often occurs because it is rational for an individual in a network to side with other people in the network. So hopefully, as people become more aware of the tactics used by advertisers to spread information (and potentially misinformation), they will realize that siding with others in their group is not necessarily a rational decision, thereby suppressing the information cascading.



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