Fixing Bugs in Democracy: Microtargeting

Friday, Apr 3, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

“Platforms have a responsibility not to undermine our democracy,” said Ellen Weintraub, commissioner with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Weintraub was the guest of Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience at Princeton University, in a virtual town hall titled “Fixing Bugs in Democracy: Microtargeting.” 

The town hall was the first in a series organized by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, Service Focus, and Princeton Public Lectures  aimed at highlighting issues in contemporary American democracy. The series, taking place virtually due to COVID-19, includes two additional town halls: one on political organizing on April 10 and another on gerrymandering on April 17.

Weintraub, who was appointed in 2002 and has been on the FEC for 17 years, spoke with Wang about microtargeting, which, according to Wang, “fractures civil society by creating separate digital realities for each of us. This is particularly dangerous during a pandemic.” Wang also described microtargeting as “an area where technology has gotten ahead of the last time the law was changed.” Weintraub generally agreed, noting that the last time the FEC regulated anything related to the internet was in 2006, and that “the difference between 2006 and 2020 is eons in internet years.”

Weintraub highlighted the need for more open information about ads, who is paying for them, etc. in order to better educate social media and internet users about why they see the content that they do. She also described the incredible specificity that these ads utilize in order to maximize their attractiveness to users.

“Platforms collect all this formation about us, and we are not even paying attention,” she said. “You might not even be getting the same ad as someone sitting across from the dining room table from you.” 

Commissioner Weintraub stressed the need for “counter speech” or the opportunity to make a better argument than the opposing political side. However, she said, microtargeting makes this impossible as viewers are now not even seeing the same information as their opponents. “This contributes to polarization,” she said. “It makes people think they're going to get their own tailor made candidate and that compromises don't have to be made.”

Wang and Weintraub also discussed the need to find a way to balance Americans’ First Amendment rights and the need for a more truth-based public resource. We need to “allow free speech but slow down false statements” said Wang.
“I don't think anybody wants the government to become the arbiter of truth. Some governments are doing this in the wake of the pandemic” said Weintraub, citing incidents of some countries penalizing citizens for misinforming citizens about the outbreak. “We have to be really careful about going down the road of giving that role to the government,” she added. Instead, Weintraub said we need to “empower citizens with better information, so they can better assess truth and falsity.” 

Wang and Weintraub also spoke about what factors are contributing to gridlock at the FEC, and what relief Congress has directed toward democratic systems in the wake of COVID-19. 

“Congress has allocated $400 million to the states so that they can beef up electoral systems,” said Weibtraub. But, she said “It is estimated by the Brennan Center (for Justice) that it would take $2 billion for everyone to vote by mail … I think democracy is worth the money.”

Towards the end of their talk, Wang asked Weintraub how she thinks positive change in America’s democratic system can be achieved. 

“It is possible for people in this country to convey to their leaders that these are not their values, that they want a better country, where everyone has a fair shot, even at getting elected,” she said.  In terms of what advice she would offer to undergraduate listeners, Weintraub said that she would “encourage them to think about how they can make a difference in their world, and think about a career in public service. Not a single one of you will get it if you make those choices.” 

Wang agreed, saying that “it is contingent upon all of us to do more than we thought we'd do” in these times of crisis. Weintraub ended the talk with perhaps the simplest, yet most important advice relating to American democracy and citizenship: “Don’t forget to vote.”

Information on how to register to attend the next two town halls can be found on the Princeton Election Consortium website. A recording of the town hall with Weintraub will be available soon.