Facebook labels us as conservative, moderate, or liberal: Does it matter?

Experts say the feature on the social media network further shows how targeted campaign advertising has become. 

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The Facebook logo behind a man with a Samsung S4 smartphone in Zenica, Bosnia, in August 2013.

Facebook labels you as liberal, conservative, or moderate, and caters the ads on your newsfeed to match how it politically identifies you.

This information became available earlier this month, when the social media network introduced a new tool that gives users more control over the advertisements Facebook's algorithms customize for them. In the drop-down menu of a page that lists a user's ad preferences is an indiscreet box that reads “US Politics,” with an individual user’s political view in parentheses, as The New York Times first reported on Tuesday.

But as questions circulate over how Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks reinforce political views and biases, experts aren't sure this political preference tool increases partisan divides any more than traditional forms of advertising on television, over the radio, or in your mailbox. Instead, academics say the tool further shows how much more targeted campaign advertising has become across all media. 

“It’s just a more nuanced application of what campaigns, both candidate and issue-advocacy campaigns, have been doing for years,” Jason Gainous, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday.

“As we’ve moved to a digital reality, it’s just become easier and easier to be targeted,” he adds. “The big questions is are we bothered by it?”

It’s no secret Facebook collects information to customize advertisements for a user. It uses the music, television shows, and candidate profiles a user likes, as well as their internet search history, to do so.

But the ad preferences page Facebook unveiled this month now enables users to see these preferences, and choose which ads they would like to see or hide. Facebook gave users this control in order to combat ad blocking, according to Adweek, but the tool also classifies a user's political preference.

Advertisers, including many political campaigns, pay Facebook to show their ads to specific demographics. With Facebook's labels, the site can help campaigns target those particular audiences. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, for instance, has paid for its ads to be shown to Facebook users classified as politically moderate, The New York Times reports. For those Facebook identifies as more politically conservative or liberal, campaigns could pay for ads that encourage users to get out to vote, rather than trying to convince them to vote for a different candidate.

Facebook's feature comes as campaigns continue to spend more on digital advertising. In 2010, online advertising accounted for 1.2 percent of all the money Congressional candidates spent on media, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, as reported by Mother Jones. By 2014, online advertising accounted for 5.5 percent of all money spent. Larry Grisolano, who oversaw paid advertising efforts for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, predicted in June 2015 that the presidential campaigns will devote nearly a quarter of their spending to digital media.

But Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, says online advertising is only effective in raising money or increasing voter turnout, not persuading voters to choose one candidate over another.

“Television is the most powerful form of persuasion,” he tells the Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday. “The internet is not as effective in changing people’s minds.”

That's why, he says, Facebook's identification of users' political views won't disrupt how campaigns have traditionally advertised. Campaigns will continue to conduct opinion polls and pay for advertising slots that target certain demographics, he says.

Even if the Facebook feature doesn’t lead to more ads meant to persuade users to vote one way or another, however, any targeted advertising can lead to a more polarized America, says Professor Gainous.

In his research with Kevin Wagner of Florida Atlantic University, they found that the more a person collected information online, the more extreme their attitudes about issues became, Gainous says.

"Do I think this will further contribute to that? Yes, absolutely," he says. It's a slippery slope, he adds: as voters become more extreme in their views, the politicians that represent them feel more pressure to stay on their own side of the aisle, rather than reach across.

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