Does the Public Have an Appetite for Political Cookies?

Candidates seem to think so.

This election season, people started to talk about political cookies – a new expression for the term previously used for targeted or customized ads. These are advertisements that are automatically pushed out based an Internet user's search habits. Computer cookies are files stored on the user’s computer that save the browsing history and behavior on websites s/he visits. This history can be activated by companies to provide a tailored browsing experience as soon as users return to these websites. Every time a user submits information to a website the information is stored. The data in the cookie file is stored locally (and reactivated at return visits) and can also be transferred to another website.

This practice has been around for a while and Google especially has become known for pushing context-relevant ads based on individual email content to Gmail accounts or to search results. Similarly, TV ads are targeting those cable TV subscribers in states that are known to be swing states – or states where pollsters know that there are many undecided voters. Other states, such as NY state – a historically blue state – will likely see very few TV ads.

This is where political cookies come in. A recent ProPublica article revealed that companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo are selling political candidates access to their users’ data:

Microsoft and Yahoo are selling political campaigns the ability to target voters online with tailored ads using names, Zip codes and other registration information that users provide when they sign up for free email and other services.

Based on the users known search and browsing history cookies, in combination with their voter records, political campaigns now have a much better sense of who they should target. These ads then pop up using a network of different sites, including social media platforms, online news sites, etc. Subtle reminders are pushed at a user based on their previous search and browsing behavior and pop up in the ad section of the visited site – instead of the previous practice pushed at them in a targeted email from which users can actively unsubscribe.

Social media companies are heavily using this practice in less subtle ways:

  • Facebook’s application to register voters and to use the same application, including voter registration records to invite friends who haven’t registered. On election day 2008 Facebook pushed an application out to count the number of people who voted and published it as an update to the newsfeed, increasing awareness among those contacts who haven’t voted. Washington State is the first state this year to actively use a Facebook application to help people register online.
  • Amazon’s election heat map displays political preferences based on its buyers’ purchases of political books.
  • Twitter displays user sentiments posted in tweets about both candidates in real time on the Twitter election index and sells trending topics to political candidates or promoted tweets based on the sentiments.