• Elections

Ads targeting voters spread in Japan’s local elections

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Targeted advertising (see below) tailored to voters’ interests has become increasingly prominent amid election campaigns that utilize the internet, in addition to the blogs and social media accounts used by political candidates.

Through the compilation of data generated online, candidates are able to more successfully deliver their ads inexpensively to like-minded voters than with most other methods. But targeted advertising might also increase the risk of unknowingly creating harmful biases among the public.

20,000 ads

“We can deliver advertisements to the people who are likely to be supportive of a candidate,” said a 46-year-old election consultant from Ehime Prefecture on the advantages of online advertising.

By using Facebook’s advertising platform, he can gain access to as many as 26 million users in Japan. In addition to age, gender, and location, advertisers can target users based on hobbies, preferences, and directories of other detailed information.

In the 47-seat Ehime prefectural assembly election held in April 2019, the election consultant helped out with Tomoe Ishii’s campaign. The 53-year-old single mother was a political newcomer with limited funds and no political party backing.

To set up her ad campaign, the consultant analyzed the tendencies of people who had liked Ishii’s Facebook posts. The consultant then narrowed down the fields for the candidate’s targeted audience to those who: were 26 years old and over; lived in Ishii’s electoral district; were interested in political measures related to child-rearing, and; had often viewed ads. Political ads that expressed Ishii’s political stance were then distributed to the Facebook users who were included in the list of targeted fields.

One month before the election was officially announced, Ishii’s camp paid several tens of thousands of yen to deliver about 20,000 ads on Facebook. But for people aged 18 to 25, who use Facebook much less on average, it placed ads on video-sharing application TikTok.

Ishii won.

“My policy pledge reached those in their 30s to 50s who were interested in raising children,” Ishii said. “I had no backing organization and insufficient funds. But thanks to the internet, I succeeded.”

Tokyo-based Ichini Inc., operator of election information website Senkyo Dot Com, similarly provides “constituency targeted advertising.” They offer services that have the capabilities of distributing advertisements only to voters in one or more specific municipalities.

Reinforcing prejudices

In the United States and Europe, election-based targeted advertisements have been blamed for incorporating prejudice or rainforcing biases.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russians posing as U.S. citizens disseminated many ads that contained false information aimed at disparaging Donald Trump’s opponents. The aim was to help Trump win, due to his friendly stance toward Russia.

In the same year, during the Brexit referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, a British consultancy is said to have distributed targeted advertising that stressed the necessity of Britain leaving the EU. The target audience was people fence-sitting on the issue.

The European Commission in December last year began to consider regulating political targeted advertising that drew on people’s ideologies and personality types on the grounds that the public could develop cognitive biases if they were exposed to large volumes of curated advertisements made to influence a hyper-specific demographic subset of the population at large.

Among platform providers, Twitter has outright banned political advertisements and Facebook has tightened regulations on certain types of individuals and organizations that place political advertisements.

Restrictions during campaigns

In Japan, the Public Offices Election Law only allows political parties to place online advertising during official election campaign periods. Candidates are allowed to run ads outside of campaign seasons, except for the purpose of offering voters in their constituencies season’s greetings, congratulations or condolences.

In the 2019 upper house election, a first-time candidate of a segment pushing for proportional representation distributed a large number of advertisements online. Although it was before the official announcement of the election, the deed drew criticism from Twitter users who stated that the candidate was exorbitantly dipping into excess funds.

While the National Referendum Law, which defines the procedures for constitutional amendments, bans TV ads from 14 days before a referendum period, the definitions that regulate online advertisements in the same period remain unclear.

The House of Representatives on May 11 passed a revision bill for the law that includes a supplementary provision to study restrictions on advertising — including online advertisements — within three years of its enforcement.

Prof. Tatsuhiko Yamamoto at Keio University, a constitutional law specialist who is familiar with the handling of data on the internet, said: “There is a risk that through targeted advertising, which distributes a large number of advertisements to specific groups, voters will be unconsciously directed to think a certain way. The platform providers must disclose information about how their systems go about placing advertisements.”

Targeted advertising

Targeted advertising refers to the distribution of internet ads for products and services based on the analyzation of online search and purchase histories. As this method allows advertisers to more efficiently find and deliver ads to likely buyers, it is being used across digital platforms with increasing frequency.