We are micro-targets

In earlier posts (see here and here), I’ve written about big data, and how it can be used in new and surprising ways to achieve a variety of scientific, commercial, and other goals.

Big data is truly a phenomenon that is changing our world in many ways. Some good, some not so good. But that’s true of any technology, really.

Interestingly, it’s possible for virtually anyone to take advantage of big data, and much easier than you might expect.

If you didn’t know that Facebook had an advertising engine, it came out loud and clear earlier this month. Turns out Russia bought a whole bunch of advertising from Facebook during the 2016 election, but we’ll get to that later in this post.

For the moment, let’s focus on an example of how easy—and relatively inexpensive—it is to take advantage of big data through Facebook and its two billion users.

Could tech-52 use big data to, for example, reach more readers? Turns out, yes.

Facebook is watching

Facebook knew that I had been promoting my blog posts to my Friends list, and reached out to me with the initial offer of advertising on their platform.

Which, as an aside, is important to point out. If anyone thinks that the social networking company doesn’t really know what its members are up to, it’s time to be disavowed of that notion.

If you have a Facebook account, the social networking company definitely knows what you’ve been up to and has undoubtedly  placed you in a variety of demographics.

Dog lover. Married. Single. In a relationship. American citizen or from another country. Birthday and age. African-American. Hispanic. Caucasian. Democrat. Republican. Tech geek or novice, iPhone or Samsung Galaxy user. MacOS or Windows. Hillary or The Donald.

The list of categories is enormous, and enables FB and its paying customers—advertisers—to micro-target users to a degree that can be hard to imagine.

Anybody can advertise

When Facebook first reached out to me, they explained that for as little as $3.00, I could reach more readers. They would insert an ad for my tech-52 post that week into multiple user feeds as a targeted advertisement.

I thought, why not? Give it a try and see what happens. I’ve funded promotions for 3 or 4 posts so far, spending on average $3.00-$6.00 a week.

At the end of each promotion, Facebook provides analytics that show me how many people my post has reached, their demographics, and whether they’ve clicked through to my website to actually view the blog post.

Here’s basically how Facebook advertising works.

When I publish a blog post, I add a comment to my tech-52 Facebook page to promote the post to followers.

Facebook adds a Boost Post button to each post. When I click that button, I get a plethora of options to promote the post.

By default, because Facebook knows I’m located in Massachusetts, it limits my promotion to that state. However, I can broaden it, and key in on the demographics I want to reach—age, interests, location, and so on.

After I save my target audience demographics, Facebook lets me define my budget and the duration of the promotion. In so doing, it shows me the projections for how many people I’m likely to reach.

As soon as I’m ready, I click the Boost button, and the promotion goes into a queue for approval. Typically, within an hour or so, I get an email from Facebook that my promotion has been approved, and off we go.

At anytime during the promotion, or after it’s over, I can drill down and see how my promotion did. How many people it reached, and how many actually clicked through to my blog post.

Eventually, I’d like to monetize the blog somehow. These Facebook promotions were my first steps into exploring how I might do that. It’s been interesting, but also eye-opening when you consider how Facebook’s advertising engine might be used—how it actually has been used.

Downsides?

We learned recently that Facebook marketed its advertising engine to at least one Russian company, and sold over $100,000 of ad placements during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Reportedly, this company, the Internet Research Agency, is heavily linked to Vladimir Putin and his oligarchic regime in Russia.

And what were the nature of these ad placements, and to whom were they targeted? More importantly, what effect might they have had on the outcome of the presidential election?

In April, I wrote how I believed the presidential election was stolen from the person who should have won it, Hillary Clinton.

And, yes, Facebook had a part in it, I wrote.

One, by enabling very specific micro-targeting of Facebook users with often-incendiary fake news.

And two, by enabling the creation of a massive number of fraudulent Facebook accounts that could be used to amplify these fake news stories.

Now this is all coming out, with mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post confirming new revelations each day, it seems.

It’s no longer reasonable for people to be skeptical of the power of social networking, and the big data on which it’s based.

Given all the ongoing investigations of the 2016 campaign that are now lending credence to those factors, we need to be taking the power of social media very seriously.

I’ve seen it firsthand on a small scale. I can only imagine what impact $100,000—and probably a lot more—might have.