Social Links: Behavioral targeting under scrutiny from lawmakers

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to take aim at social media platforms that collect and use personal information that build algorithms to target individuals across a variety of dimensions when users engage with those platforms, most prominently in the form of advertising and other promotional campaigns from the political, entertainment, and commercial realms.

The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, introduced in January by Democratic Representatives Anna Eshoo (California) and Jan Schakowsky (Illinois), and Democratic Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey), seeks to rein in advertisers, ad networks, and other entities from using personal information received from third parties to target advertisements. As Media Post reports, “The bill says personal information includes data that is ‘reasonably linkable’ to an individual or device—including inferred data, browsing activity and unique identifiers.”

What makes this bill different from previous privacy bills is its departure from requiring a user’s consent or allowing a user to opt out of behavioral targeting. The bill would still permit contextual advertising, which generally refers to advertisements based on the information that a particular screen is displaying or for which the individual searched. But it would prohibit using information collected for contextual advertising purposes for further targeting in other forums or contexts. The bill also would not restrict certain types of location-based targeted advertising. In addition, the bill would ban targeting on either actual or perceived information about a user’s race, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or other protected statuses.

The technology and advertising sectors have been swift with their commentary on the bill. Read more from the following:

Like COVID variants, misinformation in social media surges

Recent studies have shown a steep rise in misinformation being spread by online gangs and other groups responsible for coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). These movements continue to spread conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination rhetoric, and often use bullying tactics to harass and intimidate influencers, health officials, and journalists who oppose their alt-views. Many believe that these actors are causing more harm than government-backed groups, given their ability to infiltrate social media platforms, and the difficulty in regulating their informal tactics.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recently banned adversarial pages that were associated with a European anti-vaccination movement called “Viral Vendetta,” or “V_V,” as this Graphika report explains.

As Axios recently reported, “Loosely organized activist movements can be more dangerous than bot-driven campaigns that are often backed by state or government actors, because they link real-world people who can encourage each other to take more drastic actions, according to Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, director of intelligence operations at GroupSense, a threat intelligence firm.”

According to Meta, the company now has taken swift action against two tactics that these alt-actors employ:

  • Brigading: We will remove any adversarial networks we find where people work together to mass comment, mass post or engage in other types of repetitive mass behaviors to harass others or silence them.
  • Mass Reporting: We will remove any adversarial networks we find where people work together to mass-report an account or content to get it incorrectly taken down from our platform.

Increasing number of U.S. adults favor regulation of social media

A recent study from Morning Consult reported that 56% of U.S. adults are in favor of governmental regulation of social media companies. That study also cited that approximately three in five U.S. adults don’t believe that social media platforms go far enough to keep their users safe.

The year 2021 witnessed a sharp increase in governmental and general societal scrutiny of social media platforms and the roles they play—or don’t play—in a variety of societal, governmental, and political arenas.

But how to fix the myriad of issues that policymakers and the public raise about social media remains elusive, given the massive role that it plays in society.

As Ashley Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation noted in a report that accompanied the Morning Consult survey, “I think if there is legislation, it's going to be very broad, in order to try to compromise and break this really large gap between the two parties.”