August 24, 2014

SCHULMAN | “Greetings from Pakistan”

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When I got an email this summer with the subject “Greetings from Pakistan,” I thought I was being solicited. I wasn’t though. A Pakistani freshman, who I traded emails with about a column I wrote about Israel and Palestine, sent me another emailed me about the conflict this summer. The exchange stood out because of the ease with which this kid found me on Facebook after reading the column. It got me thinking; we probably leave political footprints all over the place, and its only a matter of time before activists pay companies to follow these footprints with precision advertising.

Retailers already use precision ads; lobbyists eventually will too. During the 2012 presidential election, lobbyists spent somewhere between one and two billion dollars (Take a second to ponder what you could buy with the money spent spamming Ohioans with Mitt Romney ads). Yet, online ads accounted for less than one percent of that spending — despite the fact that they’re more effective when compared to TV ads.

The amount spent on online precision ads will undoubtedly rise considering there’s a company ready to sell them. This company knows contact information and political preferences of 85 percent of Americans, and their main business is using data to place retailers’ ads — it’s called Facebook; maybe you’ve heard of them? People are surprisingly open about politics on Facebook. Most people share their political affiliation on their profile. Even if they don’t, everyone eventually likes a political page or writes one of those opinionated paragraph statuses I usually forget about (Let’s be real, who scrolls through their newsfeed to read about underprivileged children in Africa?). The thing is, Facebook doesn’t forget about that information.

Facebook hordes all the information it can and will eventually start monetizing on it. It will need to turn its data into sales revenue to meet growth expectations. Generally, Facebook grows by about three billion each year, but sustaining that kind of growth isn’t easy. If Facebook could guarantee at least one billion dollars in growth by selling political ads during election years, it would. Facebook would double its net profit margins if it didn’t kill a quarter of its gross profits in research and development, turning the data it owns into sales. Selling political ads wouldn’t be the first time Mark Zuckerberg sold out — he didn’t want ads on Facebook to begin with — but that’s certainly not how things have turned out (Retrospective Spoiler Alert to The Social Network, the movie about Facebook by Aaron Sorkin).

Whether we like it or not, Facebook will lobby users based on their data. But, it would be positive if Facebook wasn’t so opaque, and political finance wasn’t so partisan. If it wasn’t for the “Greetings from Pakistan” email, I wouldn’t have looked into an organization called Parent’s Circle. They’re an organization of Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members in the conflict and want to end the violence. I can’t help but wish that Facebook would peak my interest in organizations like Parent’s Circle — like that students’ email — instead of Collegiate Sun (as much as I like seeing their ads in my newsfeed; I’m never planning on buying cheap Cornell branded sun-glasses).

But, unfortunately, the biggest contributors to political coffers tend to be the most extreme (or, Stephen Colbert, who is also extreme but for some reason I’m okay with the fact that his political action committee raised a million dollars in 2012). But I guess you wouldn’t spend millions in political ads if you thought people agreed with you. Also, Facebook’s advertising practices are about as transparent as campaign finance itself. Get your computer and try to find an ad on Facebook; I bet you can’t. If only Parent’s Circle’s, instead of Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers’ super PACs, paid for Facebook ads.

Eric Schulman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.