Understanding the “Micro” in Micro-Targeting: An Analysis of Facebook Digital Advertising in the 2019 Federal Canadian Election

57 Pages Posted: 29 May 2020

See all articles by Colin Bennett

Colin Bennett

Department of Political Science, University of Victoria

Jesse Gordon

University of Victoria

Date Written: May 1, 2020


In the aftermath of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, there is now global attention to the nature of the "data-driven" election and the effects of political micro-targeting on campaigning practices and the integrity of our democratic systems. Political micro-targeting arguably serves to fragment political discourse, to accentuate “wedge issues”, to promote “filter bubbles” and leads to a transactional politics where localized claims and promises remain unchallenged. There are macro-consequences of micro-targeting.

Still, we contend that the concept of political micro-targeting is vaguely used, poorly understood, and only sparsely studied outside the U.S. This paper analyzes the actual practice of micro-targeting in the 2019 Canadian federal election. The Canadian case holds some important lessons for other parliamentary, multi-party democracies. What does micro-targeting look like to the average voter in Canada? How “micro” is indeed the micro-targeting?

The literature tends to assume that political micro-targeting requires a precisely segmented audience, a specific location, and, most importantly a focussed policy message. If so, then how much political micro-targeting actually occurs in Canadian elections? We analyzed a sample of ads (from the Facebook ad library) delivered on two critical dates during the 2019 federal election. We found that only a small minority (7%) met these criteria. Most ads critically lacked precision on one, or two, of these critical variables. Although we did not find widespread use of insidious ad variation witnessed in U.S. elections, we did find visible examples of A/B testing, in which the font, image, or iteration of a certain message shifted from ad to ad. However, to the extent that claims about policies or issues were made, they were generally pitched at a relatively abstract policy level.

There is a confusion, therefore, between the obscure micro-targeting processes used by Facebook and the visible manifestation of the ads to the average voter. Although the Facebook political ad library provides access to unprecedented levels of information about political digital advertising in Canada, it is still very difficult to determine why people were selected to receive the advertisements that they did.

Our findings suggest a more nuanced understanding of the practice, as well as a higher level of transparency, not only for the social media platforms but also for the data analytics performed through the political parties' voter relationship management systems. Ultimately, we need a more refined, and nuanced, understanding of the different levels of micro-targeting experienced in Canadian elections. Not all micro-targeting carries the same precision. And not all raise the same concerns about electoral manipulation and propaganda.

Keywords: Microtargeting, election campaign, digital advertising, privacy, social media, Facebook.

Suggested Citation

Bennett, Colin and Gordon, Jesse, Understanding the “Micro” in Micro-Targeting: An Analysis of Facebook Digital Advertising in the 2019 Federal Canadian Election (May 1, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3589687 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3589687

Colin Bennett (Contact Author)

Department of Political Science, University of Victoria ( email )

3800 Finnerty Rd
Victoria, British Columbia V8P 5C2

HOME PAGE: http://www.colinbennett.ca

Jesse Gordon

University of Victoria ( email )

3800 Finnerty Road
Victoria, British Columbia V8P 5C2

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