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In recent years, the landscape of political campaigning has undergone a digital revolution, marked in particular by the rise of microtargeting techniques. As the practice has spread, it has faced increasing scrutiny and regulation, with recent developments signaling potential changes in the way data-driven targeting operates. Yet, says communication scientist Fabio Votta, there are various reasons to believe that the era of political microtargeting will not be coming to an end anytime soon despite the increasing regulatory and legal attention. Votta will defend his PhD on the subject on 19 April at the University of Amsterdam.

Political microtargeting has become a prominent feature of modern political campaigning. Leveraging vast troves of data, campaigns tailor messages to specific demographics or interests, aiming for increased relevance and persuasiveness. The practice, originating in US politics, has spread globally, with social media platforms becoming central to its execution. However, concerns persist regarding the potential for manipulation and the opaque nature of algorithmic decision-making.

Fundamental influence on political messaging

Votta: ‘When a user visits a platform and scrolls through their timeline, automated systems run ad auctions to determine which advertisement to display based on factors like predicted relevance for the audience, advertiser budgets, and competing demand. The algorithms actively filter and rank which audiences will be prioritised to receive a given ad, mostly based on the logic of revenue maximisation rather than the best interests of citizens and democracy. Their decisions fundamentally influence political messaging, yet so far, have mostly escaped academic and regulatory scrutiny. And what research has been done has focussed on Western countries, yet Meta, for example, offers their ad targeting infrastructure in almost every country in the world, so I looked at targeting strategies in elections in 95 countries across the world, which had not been done before.’

Copyright: UvA
Furthermore, concerns have been raised about how political microtargeting might be Used to manipulate citizens, amplify false stories and foment social conflict. Experiments have shown that microtargeted deepfakes - AI-generated videos of politicians making statements they never said - can effectively lower the attitudes of specific voters towards politicians and parties. Fabio Votta

Political ad expenditure on digital platforms is dominated by the duopoly of Meta and Google, which account for 99.23% political adverts. Meta, including Facebook and Instagram, offers advertisers unparalleled reach coupled with sophisticated tools to target users based on location, demographics, interests, behaviors, social connections, and custom audiences that are not possible on other platforms. In contrast, Google (including YouTube) limits ad targeting to age, gender, location, and contextual targeting based on keywords.

No slowdown in microtargeting

So Meta's concession in August 2023 that it would have to ask EU users for consent to collect and process personal data for its ad services potentially could have marked a pivotal moment in the regulation of political microtargeting. The requirement for explicit user consent challenged the assumption that personal data collection for targeted advertising could continue unchecked. Yet it remains the case that consent pop-ups for online trackers are often clicked away or ignored, and, in the end, says Votta, these kinds of changes are essentially superficial and there has been no sign of a slowdown in microtargetting yet.

Votta: ‘We need to develop ever greater insights into the practices and behaviours of political advertisers and how social media platforms enable them. This is not only imperative to better understand the phenomenon of political microtargeting, but it also constitutes a necessary condition for building effective regulatory frameworks. The continued prevalence of microtargetting despite some first regulatory efforts to rein it in, suggests a complex and evolving landscape. As technology advances and strategies adapt, the need for sustained scrutiny and dialogue remains paramount.’

Defence details

Fabio Votta: A Dance with Data. Unraveling the Supply and Demand Side Dynamics of Political Microtargeting. Supervisors are Prof. C.H. de Vreese and Prof. N. Helberger. The co-supervisor is Dr T. Dobber.

Time and location

Votta's PhD defence ceremony will take place on Friday, 19 April, at 14.00, in the Aula of de UvA.