The spread of disinformation on social media platforms has fueled division, stoked violence and reshaped geopolitics in recent years. Targeted advertising has become a major battleground, with bad actors strategically disseminating misleading information or trapping modest users in scams. Facebook has worked to eliminate or redefine certain categories of targeting as part of a larger effort to combat these threats. But despite researchers’ warnings, its advertising system still allows anyone to target a wide range of populations and groups, including campaigns directed against U.S. military personnel. Currently, the major branch categories include “Army”, “Air Force” and “National Guard”, as well as much smaller categories such as “US Air Force Security Forces”.
At first glance, it might seem trivial that you can target ads to these groups as easily as most other organizations. But independent security researcher Andrea Downing says the stakes are much higher if active members of the US military – many of whom would likely be caught up in broader Facebook targeting of this sort – are faced with online disinformation. that could impact their understanding of world events or expose scams. While Downing did not detect such malicious campaigns herself, the interplay between advertisements and misinformation on Facebook is still murky.
In the wake of the Capitol riots, for example, researchers at the Tech Transparency Project found that Facebook’s systems had posted ads for military equipment like bulletproof vests and gun cases, as well as updates on the insurgency and content that promoted election misinformation. Even when lawmakers called on Facebook to stop the military equipment ads, and the company agreed to a temporary ban, some ads still appeared to be sliding by.
“Using the Facebook ad targeting system, I was able to create ads or send direct messages to current and former military personnel through broad general categories or more granular permutations,” Downing explains. “A nation-state actor could abuse it to conduct influence operations against the US military on a large scale or in a more targeted manner.”
There are roughly 1.3 million U.S. military personnel on active duty and 18 million veterans living in the United States, all of whom could represent up to $ 1.2 trillion in purchasing power, according to marketing firm SheerID. Facebook provides the ability to serve targeted ads based on employer job titles and user list, as well as “interests” it derives from user activity, such as clicking on a relevant ad or liking. a page. In both cases, this includes the military branches. For job titles, this would include retirees who always mention this experience in their profiles, but also active duty members who have filled in this field. In addition to regular targeting, Facebook also offers tools for advertisers to reach users. via its Messenger chat platform.
Many tech giants make their money from advertisements and offer similar features to facilitate targeted marketing. Google and Twitter’s platforms do not offer granular military categories, however.
“Let’s say you have younger service members from whatever branch of the military and they’re deployed away from family and looking for some kind of kinship. Facebook offers that, ”says Bill Hagestad, independent security engineer at Red Dragon 1949 and retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. “Targeted ads could therefore allow malicious individuals to use jargon, integrate favorably and manipulate service members regardless of their age or rank. And it could compromise operational security, which is also important. than the safety of those who are themselves manipulated. ”
Downing, who is also a co-founder of nonprofit The Light Collective, said she first tried to let Facebook know about her concerns in December 2019 through informal connections. Within days, she said, Facebook had removed many military ad targeting groups that it had highlighted. The problem seemed solved. By the end of August 2020, however, she noticed that many of these target groups had reappeared, even after Facebook. pruned its military categories in mid-August. “We combined several options representing military bases or regiments because specific interests were rarely used, and instead advertisers can always reach an audience interested in the military,” Facebook wrote at the time.