Journalism in the Public Interest

How to Win Facebook Friends and Influence People

A new anti-foreclosure ad campaign on Facebook targets employees of Freddie Mac and JPMorgan Chase.


Campaigns and advocacy groups are increasingly adopting the same microtargeting tactics on Facebook that companies already use. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Instead of picketing outside company headquarters, an advocacy group is using Facebook ads to try to influence people whose profiles identify them as employees of Freddie Mac or JPMorgan Chase.

The anti-foreclosure ad campaign, which launches today, asks Freddie and Chase employees to talk to their CEOs about a veteran -- a former Marine -- who's facing eviction in California.

"This is not any sort of attack on the employees there," said Jim Pugh of Rebuild the Dream, which is running the ad campaign. "We're trying to let them know what's happening."

(Photo courtesy of Rebuild the Dream)The ad that targets Freddie Mac employees features a small picture of CEO Charles Haldeman's face, and the message, "Freddie Mac did what???? Freddie Mac is evicting a former Marine who's been trying to pay his mortgage. Tell CEO Haldeman to work out a fair deal with him!" according to a copy of the ad provided by Pugh.

The JPMorgan Chase ad is similar, but with a Chase logo instead of an executive's face.

We've contacted Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase spokespeople for comment, and also reached out to Freddie Mac and JPMorgan Chase employees on Facebook. If you've seen one of these ads, please let us know.

(Photo courtesy of Rebuild the Dream) Targeted online advertising is nothing new. (As anyone who has changed their Facebook status to "engaged" can tell you, a simple update can bring a deluge of new ads.) But political campaigns and advocacy groups are increasingly adopting the same microtargeting tactics that companies use.

Rick Perry's campaign, for instance, targeted faith-focused ads to people in Iowa who listed themselves as Christians on Facebook, and ads featuring his wife to the state's female conservatives, Politico reported.

According to FEC data, Endorse Liberty, a super PAC that supports Ron Paul, has led the way on Facebook expenditures, spending a total of $241,508 through January 2012.

And it's not just Facebook and Google where campaigns and activists are doing microtargeting. The music site Pandora announced last year that it would be selling political ad space targeted to the zip codes of particular listeners, the Wall Street Journal reported.

There's nothing inherently problematic about targeted ads. Campaigns have been using direct mail to target particular voters for decades. Digital targeting can be a cost-effective way of spending advertising dollars, especially for smaller groups, like Rebuild the Dream, which sees the ads as a great way to get more bang for their buck in terms of reaching their intended audience. (The group also launched a special donation drive specifically for the Facebook ad buy.) ProPublica even used Facebook ads to try to find sources for our 2009 series, When Caregivers Harm.

But as the ability to use data to reach particular people grows more sophisticated, targeting risks crossing privacy lines, as demonstrated by a recent New York Times article on how Target knew a teenage customer was pregnant before her father did.

What's clear is that if all this microtargeting translates into electoral gains, the scale and sophistication of these efforts will continue to grow, and the data science that gained traction in 2008 will become a regular part of campaigning. In the meantime, the Obama campaign's already substantial data team continues to hire statistical modeling analysts and analytics engineers.

The increasing ease and flexibility of online targeting also raises new questions about how politicians are presenting themselves to different audiences, how much campaigns need to tell their supporters about the personal information they collect -- and what will happen to the massive databases of voter information collected during the 2012 presidential campaign. Will they be sold? Passed on to other politicians?

Rebuild the Dream, which focuses on economic issues, was launched by in 2011, but has been independent since January, Pugh said. The group's president is former Obama green jobs adviser Van Jones.

Pugh worked on the Obama campaign's digital analytics team in 2008 while also trying to finish a Ph.D. dissertation in robotics, and later did similar work for the Democratic National Committee. He said he was not sure what kind of reaction the ads would receive.

"I would imagine that people are fairly used to targeted ads at this point," he said. But while people who work in politics and advocacy may be used to receiving Facebook ads targeting specific causes, "It's hard to know in advance how unusual it will seem to the employees of Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase."

I’m in software, so data usage is near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been put in charge of all sorts of information, over the years, that I shouldn’t have been allowed to see.

As I see it, the problem isn’t data usage, it’s data collection and retention.  I don’t care that someone targets their ad to someone with my profile via Google or Facebook, what I care about is that they cling to that data, share it with others, and feel that they have more of a right to my employment history (for example) than I do.

If you announce something to the world about yourself, you should expect that people are going to use that information to pigeon-hole you, whether it’s your gender, religion, profession, political affiliation, nationality, or astrological sign.  Do they make a difference?  Probably not, but a lot of people think so, so we all learn to live with it.

If you’re a woman, guys are going to hit on you.  If you’re Asian, people are going to assume you play the violin.  Mildly offensive and sad, but a relatively painless fact of life.

It crosses the line from advertiser to stalker, though, with companies (and some people) keeping a virtual closet with dozens of secretly-taken pictures of me on my routine, maps to my home and job, who I spend time with, and what I buy.  And it borders on harassment, too, when companies opt you into everything, then sell your profile to anybody willing to pay, like the biggest “for a good time” scrawl on a bathroom wall.

Unfortunately, our data privacy law (only one law, no less) is a quarter-century old, and can’t even start to envision an era where a barely-literate child can compile a sophisticated file on many people that would make the FBI’s head spin.  So, it’s legal—heck, encouraged—in the modern climate that nothing is wrong until it’s strictly banned.

To me, the solution is obvious:  You can use whatever’s publically posted or offered to direct a plea, but you can’t retain that information once the initial request for contact has been made.  That’s all the law needs to say, and the creepiest of these situations vanish.

Hi John,

Really interesting perspective—thanks for sharing.

Interesting piece. But how come, when I checked on the hidden tags, cookies, etc., that accompanied it from ProPublica (to which I have donated), I find 6 intruders? Four “social buttons” were tracking me; 1 ad network (Outbrain) was snooping; 2 companies (Chartbeat and Google Analytics) were eavesdropping? Is ProPublica doing anything about this?
—Fred Powledge did you do that? and how or what did you do to solve?
thanks fred

Fred….Why would ProPublica want to do anything about it? They’re in on the game too. There isn’t anything anyone does on the internet that isn’t being tracked by a flock of vultures. Even though umpteen computers have spotted my click to this website and someone(s) will be interested in what I have to say on this post, I maintain one weapon in all this spying—Never buy anything off an internet ad (and don’t respond to any surveys). Good luck to you and may we all someday have the means to protect ourselves from the techno-headhunters.

Fred….My post in response to your information just got knocked off, presumably by ProPublica. I’ll try to send this one on and see what happens.

I see my post went through afterall. Maybe just a glitch, maybe not.

I tried to respond to Bill with the name of the free Firefox add-in that I use to catch snoopers, but my comment was blocked by ProPublica because someone named Askine thinks it might be spam. This is hilarious. If anyone wants the name of that program, they can e-mail me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), which is an address my e-mail provider provides to reduce spam. This is getting bizarre!—Fred Powledge

Response to Nancy: Even I, a 32d degree paranoid, aren’t willing to think so harshly of ProPublica. But maybe I’m wrong. ProPublica seems remarkably free of vultureism. But whatta do I know?—FP

Hi Fred & Nancy,

Yes, it’s true that (like most news organizations) we do some basic tracking of visitors to our site. Here’s what we do, and why:

-We use Google Analytics to count how many people visit our site and how many pages they view.
-We use Chartbeat to analyze our traffic. Among other things, Chartbeat tells us where our visitors are coming from. Are people finding our stories on Twitter, or on Google News? This helps us figure out what’s working in terms of our different outreach strategies.
-Outbrain supplies the recommended stories at the bottom of each story on our site.
-The social buttons make it possible for readers to share our stories on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, or Facebook.

We do not sell any information about people who come to our site.


Thanks, Lois, for letting us know about ProPublica’s involvement. The lurkers you named seem relatively benign in this day and time of wholesale spying, prying, and information theft, but it would have been nice if your site, one of the more trusted ones in my little world, had laid all that information out beforehand, voluntarily. And even better if other Web sites I visit would respond as quickly as you did.

I’m still wondering, however, about that person with a single name who thought one of my postings might be spam. He or she posted that objection a split second after I had made my posting; sort of made me think “Askine” is the name of a computer program or something.

“But political campaigns and advocacy groups are increasingly adopting the same microtargeting tactics that companies use. “

That’s good news ‘cause I’m sick of seeing all the Chase Marathon ads on FB—as if Chase were a charitable organization.

Do ya think Facebook is any better at analyzing data than the CIA or NSA?

Yeah, I asked that for a reason…do you really think some rightie with a few hundred billion to spare won’t investigate the possibility of privatizing the CIA and NSA?

Rich righties are dicks…if they see a way to manipulate the data that government makes decisions from, they will.  They have.

Lois, Thank you for sharing Pro Publica’s policies about this as quickly as you did.  It gives great confidence.  There is a future and a business model in investigative journalism.  Keep it up.

Lois, thanks.  Unfortunately, I end up having a discussion on the topic about twice a month, due to various projects potentially hitting ethical boundaries.  I think a “catch and release” approach is the only way that protects users without putting a significant burden on service providers.  It won’t stop spam, but nothing will short of charging to deliver e-mail, which nobody wants.

(If such a thing doesn’t happen, my prediction is that the Supreme Court is going to be forced to rule that companies are governing communities and have an obligation to respect the Bill of Rights like any local government.  That would be an absurd burden, requiring a court order to track your own website visitors.)

The other part is education:  People need to understand that Facebook and Google (conspiracy theories aside) are tools for advertisers to efficiently route messages to volunteers, full stop.  Your use of the site is a happy coincidence to them.

Fred and Nancy, I know it ticks off the site owners a little bit, because it foils their statistics (so I apologize to the ProPublica techies), but I highly recommend “Ghostery,” a browser add-in that reports which “bugs” are on the site and blocks them.  It’s also worth using the secure (HTTPS) version of a site where it’s available, just on principle, and HTTPS Everywhere is sponsored by the EFF and Tor and available for Firefox and Chrome.  I’m not involved with either project beyond a happy user.  There are a few other tools that are nice, too, depending on your precise level of paranoia or spite.

Steve, it might be a close call.  From its launch, there have been rumors that the NSA might have been involved with some of Facebook’s more “clever” aspects.

As for privatizing intelligence work in general, that’s been happening for decades.  Check out the recent WikiLeaks hub-bub about Stratfor, a Texas based espionage firm involved in a wide variety of “projects,” for just one example.

These employees need to stop playing with facebook while at work.  IT departments need to block access to these time waster,  blabber mouth web sites. 

A web site put a cookie on your computer.  Get a life and stop complaining about it.

Hal, would you let your local supermarket put a GPS tracker in your car?  I mean, it’s only a small electronic device.  As long as you don’t drive during work hours, it should be OK…

Every site that uses Google Analytics sends your visit (which may include your identity, I forget) to Google.  Every site with a “Like” button sends that information to Facebook, and that does include your identity.  And either (or both) is allowed to sell that information, and they’re not required to secure it.  The cookie is the least interesting part of the affair, by far.

laurie hackworth

March 20, 2012, 11:36 a.m.

dont have my friends on my chat list on my facebook,Need them back please

I get enough junk mail in my e-mail inbox.  Don’t need to be targeted by Facebook so don’t participate.  However, they have my name and other information simply because some of my friends and family participate.  Talk about big brother.  I’d rather the government have all my information, wherre it’s use can be regulated, than for-profit companies who have proven they have no ethics in using it.  When will enough be enough?

@Nancy:  I kind of wish I had said I was an FBI agent or an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice way back when I filled out my first “user information” quiz.

If I had maintained that fiction (and didn’t go to jail for doing it), I bet that would have chilled out at least some of the junk email.  Of course, it would have made selling my information to “interested third parties” (particularly, I suspect, interested foreign parties) that much more lucrative for the web’s data collectors…

We need another web:  One for people, only…no corporations allowed.

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