Snap Mixup Allows Dem and GOP Orgs to Target Ads to Wrong Audience

September 19th, 2022 11:27 AM

Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, claimed to have accidentally allowed Republican and Democrat firms to dip into each other’s target audiences for political ads. 

A Snap spokesperson told MRC Free Speech America that the platform’s internal mistake impacted Democrat and Republican political ad targeting equally, giving both sides access to each other’s audiences.

However, Axios reported that according to Snap’s records, the mistake’s “use by political groups was significantly more prolific on the Democratic side.”

Snap uses two main data collectors, i360 and TargetSmart, to help political advertisers send tailored ads to a targeted audience.

i360 has worked with Republican campaigns and TargetSmart explicitly does not work with Republican candidates.

According to Axios, the two data collection companies usually only allow “preapproved lists” of advertisers to use the voter data that they provide Snap. However, the Democratic National Committee, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and others reportedly accessed the expanded audience that i360 data unwittingly provided. The Daily Wire allegedly also accessed TargetSmart data, according to Axios.

Axios did not report, nor did MRC Free Speech America find, clear evidence that advertisers intentionally exploited the information gleaned from the mix-up. The Snap spokesperson said that advertisers never obtained direct access to any private information. But Snap’s mistake raises serious questions about Big Tech privacy and ad targeting.

The Heritage Foundation Tech Policy Center analyst Will Thibeau told MRC Free Speech America in an email why Americans should be concerned about Snap’s misstep. “It is true that advertisers would never be able to obtain bulk data sets and comb through individual profiles by themselves,” he said. “Rarely do data stores like FB or Google sell data. Instead, they sell access to data to third parties who overlay an algorithm on top of the data to send them an ad or service.”

Thibeau later gave the hypothetical example of a “Democrat political campaign sending a misleading ad to Snap users of Ukrainian descent about how conservatives want Russia to win a war.” He explained that “algorithms that sit as a filter on top of massive data sets … feed those ads to the most susceptible users.”

Snap’s spokesperson clarified that Snap’s algorithms (not the advertiser or data collector’s algorithms) feed ads to users based on the target demographics chosen by the advertiser. 

i360 did not respond to MRC Free Speech America’s request for comment by the time of publication.

The Heritage Foundation is a member of the Free Speech Alliance.

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