Although Facebook allows advertisers to target people by personally identifiable information, city or area within a chosen radius, such as 25 or 50 miles around a city, the social networking website does not target ads to IP addresses or small geographic regions within a city, such as Congressional districts.
Easy enough to comply with the law in South Dakota, for instance, where Rep. Kristi Noem (R) represents the whole state. Not so much in Brooklyn, where six representatives share more than 2 million constituents spread out among a few hundred city blocks.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, for example, can target ads to Facebook users who live in Brooklyn and like his Facebook profile. But it’s still imprecise to the point where the New Yorker could ensnare constituents of fellow Brooklyn-based Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler or Edolphus Towns.
That’s what might have happened when Weiner advertised a town hall meeting on Google and Facebook in August.
The House Administration Committee requires Members to report how many times an online ad was clicked, referred to as a click-through, and how many times the ad appeared on a website, which is called an impression.
When printed in the statement of disbursements, that information is consolidated into a lump-sum number including hard-copy franked mass mail, click-throughs, impressions and other mass mail.
In the third quarter of 2010, Weiner’s office reported more than 17 million franked items — 70 per household in his district.
A spokesman for the Congressman said the town hall ad actually drew 14,462,674 impressions online and that it was targeted to district constituents, though the office does not have the address of everyone who saw the ad. After being contacted by Roll Call last month, Weiner’s office filed a corrected franking report reflecting only the Web ad’s click-throughs. That number is 2,469.
Industry professionals said it is not beyond the pale for an ad to draw that many impressions, but no other Member got close. The Bully Pulpit Interactive, the company through which Weiner’s office bought the ad, did not return a request for comment.
A spokesman for Facebook did not comment, but a new-media political consultant speaking on the condition of anonymity said Facebook is simply trying to protect its users’ privacy.
“The information Facebook has to target from is more robust than anything else, except for maybe Google, which has what ZIP codes you order pizza from,” the consultant said. “The problem is Facebook, to protect its users’ privacy, tries to make sure no one piece of targeting can be used too surgically.”
Even Google ads are not perfect. Someone’s work computer, for instance, could have an IP address listed in Washington, D.C., when the person actually lives and votes in Virginia or Maryland.
The House Administration Committee does not require that Members report how the ad was placed and to whom it appeared.
Wood said the committee is planning to shore up the reporting requirements.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.