Barack Obama’s reelection campaign pioneered a pathway for political campaigns to reach voters through Facebook when it released an app that helped supporters target their friends with Obama-related material.
But as the 2016 presidential campaign approaches, Facebook is rolling out a change that will prevent future campaigns from doing this, closing the door on one of the most sophisticated social targeting efforts ever undertaken.
“It’s a fairly significant shift,” said Teddy Goff, who was Obama’s digital director in 2012, and oversaw the effort that helped the Obama campaign gain a Facebook following of 45 million users that year. Goff’s team used Facebook and other tools to register more than a million voters online and to raise $690 million online in 2011 and 2012.
“The thing we did that will be most affected — by which I mean rendered impossible — by the changes they're making is the targeted sharing tool,” Goff said.
More than 1 million Obama supporters in 2012 installed the campaign’s Facebook app. These supporters were given the option to share their friend list with the Obama campaign. Goff said most of the app users did so. And when they did, Goff’s team would then “run those friend lists up against the voter file, and make targeted suggestions as to who [supporters] should be sharing stuff with.”
This was a powerful new form of voter outreach. The Obama campaign had concluded that many voters — especially younger Americans — viewed TV and other forms of advertising from the campaign with suspicion and skepticism. But they were still open to messages that came from friends and acquaintances.
The key to getting persuasive messages in front of persuadable voters going forward, the campaign decided, was to have them come from people they knew.
“It's extremely powerful for a campaign to be able to say to [a user], ‘Hey, here are your persuadable friends, ranked in order of where they live: Ohio first, Virginia second, et cetera. Go share this video directly with them,'” Goff said.
The Romney campaign also started doing this, but only in October, a month before the presidential election.
Then in the spring of 2014, Facebook — responding to growing privacy concerns — cracked down on how much information third-party applications could gain about those who installed the apps.
“We've heard from people that they're often surprised when a friend shares their information with an app,” wrote Facebook engineering manager Jeffrey Spehar in a blog post. “So we've updated Facebook Login so that each person decides what information they want to share about themselves, including their friend list.”
Today, when Facebook users choose to share their friend list with an app, only those friends who also use the app become visible, Facebook spokeswoman Tera Randall told Yahoo News.
The changes went into effect for new apps on April 30, and existing apps were given a year before the change applied to them. (In technical terms, what Facebook is doing is changing its Graph application programming interface, or API, as well as the terms of service for app developers.)
What this means in practice is that a group like Ready for Hillary, the grass-roots network of supporters for a Clinton presidential run, has been able to use targeted sharing over the past year. That means it has the Facebook friend lists of all the people who’ve installed Ready for Hillary’s app on the social network.
But when the API and terms-of-service changes become permanent for all apps, Ready for Hillary — as well as any campaign that has bought its voter information — won’t be able to keep up to date with its supporters’ most recent lists of friends, and will learn nothing about the Facebook friends of new supporters. Facebook’s change becomes permanent on April 30, 2015.
Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, will not get the chance to use the tool at all.
Aside from a brief article over the summer in Campaigns & Elections, the political press has not taken notice of the change.
Already, though, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has decided not to put time and resources into using Facebook’s targeted sharing tools.
“We could have continued to use it just for this cycle, and it could have been useful to some degree, but for me it was a question of resource prioritization,” said a senior NRSC official. “I wanted to focus on getting the fundamentals right first, then building up the chain of sophistication.”