Social media — and more specifically, Facebook — plays an integral part in the lives of over one billion people. We keep in touch with friends, RSVP to birthday parties, donate money to causes we care about and express our opinions on current trends and events. But somewhere down the line, things became a little muddy.
We’ve all become aware one way or another about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how Facebook was used to sway the 2016 United States presidential election. Facebook has since made some changes and launched a campaign to go back to its roots of sharing what matters most to its users and doing its best to monitor the misuse of its targeting tools, but not before primetime television took a stab at educating the public on how this all happened.
As someone who works in a digital marketing agency I’m aware of the tools brands can use to best target their audiences. I’m also a huge TV buff and one of my favorite shows is The Good Fight, a spinoff of CBS’s hit show The Good Wife, which streams on CBS All Access.
In season 2, episode 8, titled “Day 457” (the show titles this season’s episodes by the number of days President Trump has been in office), the show dives into microtargeting (their term — we prefer to just say “audience targeting”). Entertainment Weekly describes it as “the process by which advertisers use ad dollars to zero-in on very specific groups of people in order to influence their actions (e.g., what Russia did with fake news during the 2016 election).”
Head to Entertainment Weekly to read a full recap of the episode or go to CBS All Access to watch. To make a long story short, the microtargeting angle in the episode revolves around two law firms using microtargeting to produce and push fake news articles on Facebook to members of the jury and the judge himself. At first, no one knows where these articles are coming from and how they’re appearing in front of the jury. An investigator from one of the firms figures out what’s happening by creating a fake Facebook profile and filling the personal information fields using the Likes and interests of the people on the jury. She then goes to a fake news generator website, creates a fake news story, then targets the fake Facebook profile organically by creating a very specific audience on the site. When she goes to the fake profile’s Facebook news feed, the fake news article is the first thing to pop up.
Once they found out where the articles were coming from and how they were reaching the jury, I paused the episode. I thought, “Wait a minute — this can’t be 100-percent accurate.” Granted, it’s a fictional show and they probably took creative license with how microtargeting actually works, but they kept using this angle and explaining further in great detail how it works throughout the episode. So, I decided to do some investigating.
First, the fake news article. Are there really sites out there that generate fake news articles and use audience tools integrated with Facebook to target specific groups? YES — there are. All you need is a headline, a short description and an image, and you have a linked article ready to go. A few differences, though: The sites I found don’t create full-length articles. They only tease with a headline and description. When you click the link, it takes you back to the generator’s website. Most people nowadays will get their news from just the headline and description, so the possibility of someone clicking the link to get the full story is very low. Other sites make it so that you can edit real news stories from credible sites. You can edit the copy and images and create a linked page that will feature the edited story.
Do these generators offer tools to target audiences organically and post to Facebook directly from their site, or are they integrated with Facebook’s audience tools? First off, organic targeting isn’t a thing, and the fake news generators I found online aren’t actually equipped with any sort of audience tools for targeting. They offer buttons to share across almost every single social channel, as well as links to copy-and-paste, but nothing that would make it a one-stop-shop. Although, anyone with a small budget and knowledge of post boosting on Facebook shouldn’t have much trouble paying to get the fake news article in front of the right people. Which is probably why Facebook put out some tips to help users identify fake news stories from real ones.
Once I completed my investigation, I went back and finished the episode thinking that the microtargeting battle between attorneys would escalate into something major. Sadly, a huge twist in the end was revealed and the case was settled out of court, having nothing to do with the outcome of the microtargeting. Although, in later episodes of the season, microtargeting becomes a common tool used by investigators to sway judges and provide “proof” for claims in cases.
One takeaway from my stint as a digital marketing investigator was I realized how important it is to play close attention to what pops up in my Facebook feed. I personally don’t mind seeing ads pop up for services, products or events that I genuinely have interest in, but when it comes to news, or political ads, I’ll definitely take the extra time to click through and verify their credibility.