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How Mitt Romney Followed Me Around the Internet

Romney’s campaign is using the same ad targeting tactics as airlines and shoe stores.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Stratham, N.H., on June 15, 2012. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last month, I was searching for a peppy Glee song on the music site Grooveshark, and up popped two ads for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. One invited me to "Learn More." The other suggested that I "Donate."

Had Romney's campaign decided that swing voters might frequent an Internet music site with copyright issues? Are Glee fans now a key demographic?

But it turns out the campaign wasn't advertising to Grooveshark listeners or a capella fans.

They were targeting me.

As a reporter covering how campaigns use voter data, I spend a fair amount of time on Romney's official website. That apparently triggered an online targeting company to send me Romney ads wherever they could find me on the web.

"If you visit our site, you are likely to see our ads," a Romney campaign official told me, when I forwarded a screenshot of the ads.

This is the same kind of online targeting used by sites that sell airline tickets or shoes. If you visit Zappos, advertisements for the sneakers you looked at will sometimes follow you around the web. Romney's campaign was sending me a "donate" button instead.

But the fact that I was being targeted based on my visits to the campaign site wasn't at all clear from the ads themselves.

Each of the ads had a teensy blue triangle in the top right corner.

Because I report on online advertising, I know that the triangle means I've been targeted. Many online ad companies have agreed to give consumers a heads-up that they're seeing a message that's been personalized to them. They mark targeted ads with a blue triangle icon or the words "Ad Choices."

When I clicked on the blue triangle on one of the Romney ads, a message popped up saying that a company called ShareThis had "determined that you might be interested in an ad like this." The ad had been "selected for you based on your browsing activity."

To find out exactly what information about my "browsing habits" was being used — and how it had been collected — I had to go behind the scenes, into the complicated world of online data tracking and targeting.

I was only vaguely aware of ShareThis, and hadn't realized it had anything to do with advertising. The company is probably most widely known for the little sharing buttons on many sites that make it easy to post stories onto Twitter and Facebook.

You can find ShareThis widgets across the web, from the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, New York magazine, and The Huffington Post, to the Food Network, and Us Weekly.

Barry Grant, an executive in charge of privacy at ShareThis, told me that the company actually gives its widgets away for free, and also includes statistics that tell publishers what's being shared, and where.

What it gets in exchange is information about what individual surfers are reading and sharing across the Internet — a valuable trove of data that it uses to target online ads.

The company works with nearly 1.4 million different websites, all of which have agreed to let ShareThis collect information about their visitors.

The company uses a small text file called a cookie to track the behavior of any visitor who has used a ShareThis widget. The cookie allows ShareThis to continue to collect information about what someone is viewing as he or she moves from site to site. (ShareThis allows users who don't want to be tracked to opt-out.)

When an advertiser comes and tells ShareThis that they want to show an ad to people who are interested in Republican primary elections, ShareThis can identify a group of people who have recently read articles or watched videos about the primaries, and show them ads.

This means that ShareThis has the ability to help the Romney campaign identify groups of voters interested in particular issues — and because Romney's campaign website uses ShareThis buttons, the company is also collecting information about visitors to the campaign's own site.

Even before a campaign official confirmed that they did target ads at users who visited the campaign site, ShareThis's Grant said that he was "100 percent certain" that my visiting the site "was a major factor."

While a Romney campaign official confirmed that the campaign targets ads at users who visited the campaign site, the official — who declined to be named — wouldn't go into detail how the targeting was done.

Grant said ShareThis could have also worked with the Romney campaign to target users interested in a variety of topics, from broad categories, like people who visit pages about "Republicans," to more narrow ones, like people interested in "No more taxes."

He pointed out that some advertisers also choose to target people who are interested in their competitors. "Let's say Nissan wanted to go after people sharing content on Hondas. We could find people who looked at, shared, clicked on topics" related to Hondas, Grant said.

So Romney's campaign could also use ShareThis to target people who were reading or sharing content about Obama, or about Obama and certain subjects, like healthcare or the economy.

"It would be smart for him to do," Grant said, especially if the Romney campaign was trying to reach undecided voters.

ShareThis is careful to stay away from some tracking. It doesn't gather the information users type into web forms, even though that's a capability other tracking companies have.

The company also chooses not to match its data on users' browsing habits with their real-names or offline sources like voter records. They also won't connect your real name to your online interests, even if you log in to ShareThis via Twitter or Facebook.

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Microsoft and Yahoo use registration data (like names and Zip codes) to match Internet users to their official voting records, so political campaigns can target ads to particular people based on their party registration or donation history.

Grant called that "a slippery slope," and said that ShareThis preferred to keep its data on individual people completely anonymous.

"Even if it is matching data that is one step lower than anonymous, to me, it's not a safe place to be operating," he said.

It's worth noting that Tim Schigel, ShareThis' founder and chairman, is a top technology adviser to the Republican National Committee, where he consults on a wide range of issues. ("Tim's role on the RNC doesn't have any bearing on ShareThis. ShareThis is a large platform that runs ad campaigns for candidates across the political spectrum," a company spokeswoman said.)

All this information was helpful — but it still didn't answer one lingering question. Was the song that I had searched for on Grooveshark, Pink's "Raise Your Glass," part of the targeting process?

This isn't a farfetched question, since the Romney campaign told the New York Times in April that Internet users' musical taste actually played a role in the campaign's microtargeting research. Among other factors, people who like jazz were unlikely to respond to Romney ads, the campaign discovered.

But ShareThis spokeswoman Jennifer Hyman said that the company did not target its ads "based on the music the user is listening to."

So it's still unclear whose political ads you'll see if you're too school for cool.

Have you seen a targeted political ad?

If you spot that blue triangle on an online political ad — for Romney, Obama, or any local candidate — let us know. The words "Ad Choices" at the corner of an ad are another sign that the ad has been targeted.

We'll be able to learn the most about how you were targeted if you take a screenshot of the advertisement, and another screenshot of the accompanying disclosure message, and send them to us via email at targeting2012@propublica.org. Please include the full URL of the page where you saw the ad.

Not sure how to take a screenshot? Here are the instructions if you're using a PC, using a Mac, or using a smartphone.

You can also check out our "Message Machine" project, which is analyzing how campaigns are targeting voters with different versions of campaign e-mail messages.

I’m not entirely sure why this was written. Which is also why i think there are no comments on it yet. Who knows though.

Sorry, but i couldn’t tell if you were making a political statement, teaching us something (i work in advertising so it wasn’t anything), or if you were mad about it, or possibly glad bout it all.

I was dissappointed to get to the bottom and have you question whether or not the Pink song you listened to was the source of your targeting. Seriously!!! You can be targeted by imply following a link off of ANY page to ANYwhere and if they have a “cookie” behind that link, it will save on your computer..

Dont like it? Clear your cache. Empty your history. Remove your Cookies.

Like it? Good, you should. Ads are meant to be targeted and should be relevant. I would love to have someone show me an add for a new pair of pants i might like. I would NOT however enjoy seeing an ad for makeup because I don’t wear makeup.

I don’t get it…

if he “follows” me, I’ll block him, call police for harrassment and stalking, internet stalking. He’s a creep, no matter how you look at him. sneer, sly smile, full of evil.

This is why I use duckduckduckgo.com as my search engine. It doesn’t track you.

And why do you view ads at all? Why not block them?

Internet tracking, be it by politicians or by commercial interests, can be blocked by tracking blockers that are installed as add-ons to your web browser. I use a free blocker called Ghostery. (I have no ties to them, it just works for me.) ghostery.com for Windows or Mac

@julie - While DuckDuckGo may not track you, other sites you visit, such as the author’s experience with the Romney site, will. Without a blocker, tracking is unavoidable.

I second Ghostery.  DuckDuckGo, too, though I like them far more for the quality of the search results than the privacy.  There are also tools to anonymize your interaction with Google services, so that they can track you, but your movements look like different people…unless you’re logged in, but I assume that’s pretty obvious.

Those very interested may want to contact the members of the Senate Commerce Committee.  Today, they’ll be reviewing the “Do Not Track” system, which advertising representatives want to make mean “Don’t Customize Advertising, but Track Anyway.”  A polite note that you care about how it’s implemented and how it affects you wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Advertising took a turn for the worse when targetting became available.  The very idea that I’ll impulse-buy a car (which is apparently the goal, the way these things are structured) or change banks is insane.  The idea that someone is deciding that I shouldn’t watch commercials for “girl stuff” is remarkably offensive; perhaps next time, they’ll decide I’m too white to learn about a blues album or too nerdy to be interested in sneakers.

Tosha Delfeld

June 28, 2012, 6:32 p.m.

Does he pay per ad? Because I would be happy to go visit his site, and ask all my friends to do so as well, and put up with seeing the ads, if it meant he’d be paying more, since there is absolutely nothing he could do to get me to vote for him. I would love to spike his wheel, though.

I use Do Not Track Plus. It is free and right now it is blocking 4 social networks, 2 ad networks and 5 ad companies that are trying to track me from ProPublica. It works and it is free

I’m in Internet Marketing, I know how to track you, and “even I” don’t like this. Excellent tips on blocking tools from Bill and John.
I believe the EU recently passed a law making some kinds of online tracking illegal unless the site user specifically consents/opts in. (Must check my facts however, and follow up on the U.S. “Do Not Track” law.)
@Mike, I get your point - I’d rather see ads for things I’m interested in. I visit several websites for personal enjoyment & interest regularly… and their ads are appropriate. If a company’s marketing manager doesn’t know who their audience is (and where to place ads) without resorting to visitor/ad tracking, they’ve got scrambled eggs for brains.

Solomon Kleinsmith

July 9, 2012, 10:16 p.m.

This is a pretty one-sided look at this issue. The Obama campaign does the same thing. I get followed around the internet by their ads all of the time.

@Mike - Believe or not, we don’t all like looking at ads all the time - whether we like the specifics or not. And learning more about the workings is news to many of us. Perhaps, as someone who works in advertising, you might be more curious how others feel about it.

@Ben: I understand that not everyone enjoy’s looking at ads, which at times makes sense. I mean the nice thing about many of the ads that are served across the networks TODAY is that you have the resources available to you for blocking them. I’m glad people are doing their research, and there are useful committees established to help people achieve their blocking desires. However, that being said… ads today also are FAR less intrusive than the days of pop-up advertisements and often times you wont even see them (as long as you keep your eyes away from the sides of the monitor) :-P ... Ads are also regulated to not play any sound today unless the user initiates them. So at least we as consumers have that working in our favor.

I appreciate your point though, it is always important to understand how users want to interact across the web. Don’t forget, the only way to keep websites running for free and the internet alive is through advertisements. So occasionally do your favorite companies a solid and click on an add :)

Happy surfing!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues in the 2012 election you won't read about elsewhere.

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