Facebook may have been able to change the outcome of the election

By  | 

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - A new report, written by a former anonymous Facebook executive said their ad targeting is so advanced, the social network may have been able to change the outcome of the election, if they had wanted to.

In a report on The Guardian in the U.K. the former executive explains, "Mark Zuckerberg was being disingenuous (to put it mildly) when, in the wake of Donald Trump's unexpected victory, he expressed doubt Facebook could've flipped the presidential election."

The author adds, "I was at Facebook in 2012, during the previous presidential race. The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke."

So just how targeted can Facebook's advertising get? In turns out, it's come a long way in recent years.

"It used to just start by saying, 'what data are people telling Facebook?'" explained Chris Prendergast, Vice President of Operations for Clickrain in Sioux Falls.

"Today, Facebook not only knows that, they know all of the pages you like, some of the websites you visit and they're also buying data from third parties that they're layering on top of that to know all kinds of purchase behaviors and things that you would never even think."

But sometimes, Facebook seems a little like 'big brother,' right? Rumors often fly about whether Facebook might be listening if you elect to let it use your microphone on mobile devices, or that the social network is reading your private text messages and emails.

"There's some debate whether Facebook is actually listening to you through the microphone part of their app," Prendergast said.

So, KSFY News put it to the test. Reporter Erika Leigh texted friends and family about pregnancy, then kept her Facebook app open while chatting with reporter Bridget Bennett about babies and shopping for baby items.

What was the result? Ads for L.L. Bean men's shirts, a Vogue Magazine subscription, and drapes Erika had looked at on Amazon a few days ago ... but nothing related to pregnancy or babies.

So how does it work?

'Even without that just based on the data they do know and all of this machine learning they can predict things about you that you might not even know yourselves, like, this person is likely to purchase a house in the next six months," Prendergast said.

"Marketers can still go through the basics like, what generation, what are the geographies that we want to target?" Prendergast explained. "But also things like, purchase intent of a car or a house or other interests that you might like on Facebook or just visit those type of websites."

But that's not all the algorithm does.

"Facebook has so much data that they run it into an algorithm to say, 'we know that these people have these sort of characteristics, and did purchase a house,'" Prendergast said.

Then it suggests similar people to the ones who actually made the purchase,"'Well here are other people who have the exact same purchase characteristics but haven't taken that step yet.'"

The algorithm is so advanced, Prendergast said marketers can even put their own data into it and get results.

Facebook's algorithm works in more ways than one, however.

"So Facebook really has two ways that they can influence their users one way, is what shows up in the 'newsfeed' that your friends are posting and liking -- ideally -- they want to show you things that you're going to engage with so that you spend more time on the site," he said.

"The second way is in the tools it gives to advertisers, to reach their audience," Prendergast explained. "In some cases that's, 'we want you buy something,' but in the case of the election that case is, 'we want you to vote this way,'"

Prendergast said the best example he uses to illustrate the power of Facebook, is when the network executed a campaign that allowed users to tell their friends whether they were organ donors back in 2013. The first day of the campaign, the number of people who registered to donate their organs was up 21 times more than a comparable day.