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Targeting Micro-Targeting

November 27th, 2019 by dk

“This really is not about money,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted during a televised House hearing last month. “It is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”

Yeah, let’s go with that.

The House hearing was televised for the same reason. People should see for themselves what politicians and business leaders are saying, so they can discuss these things with those around them. Our Founding Fathers’ keenest insight centered on the public square, protecting speech and assembly for the people.

Zuckerberg points out that only a tiny sliver of Facebook’s revenue — less than one percent — comes from political advertising, so he’s correct that it’s not about money. So what is our current dilemma about, exactly? It’s about micro-targeting, and whether surveillance capitalism is compatible with our democratic ideals.

Facebook and others have traded the public square for the private corner. Three people in a room watching those House hearings on television saw the same ads. Three people in a room looking at their phones could be seeing three different sets of ads, fed from the same site. The issue is not whether people can see what advertising politicians are saying, but how completely those ads can be hidden from others.

Websites and apps can now deliver advertising messages with frightening precision. What can we do?

Ban micro-targeting, or tax it. We still have a chance to do something about this, before our economy and society have reshaped themselves. Our doorbells, our cars , and our refrigerators have begun collecting data on us. It won’t stop or slow unless we do something.

Our individual dossiers are built, bought and traded for only one purpose — to sell us stuff. Political ads are designed to sell us on candidates or issues, but they are really no different from other ads. They represent the tip of the spear, and that spear is aimed at the heart of our republic — the public square, the general welfare, the common ground.

We can’t care about the same things if we don’t know about the same things. Micro-targeting must be stopped or slowed, giving society time to adapt. But how?

Start with the broadcast model. Allow advertisers to focus only their geographic reach. Ban the use of demographic or psychographic profiles. Everyone in the same room would again see the same messages. Websites and apps that don’t abide by these rules will be easily caught.

Or add a label to ads that identifies the number of limiters used for targeting. Charge a small tax on each limiter. You want to sell your razors to anyone who wants them? No extra tax. But you want your eco-friendly safety razor advertised only to young men in big cities who buy diapers, granola, a new Prius every three years? That’ll cost extra.

Remember: “It’s not really about money” — right?

By the way, politicians can show their good faith in restoring “common” to the common good by ending micro-targeting in their own realm. All public political rallies should welcome all comers — no tickets or registration required. This will solve the problem Facebook represents.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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