Microtargeting looms larger than ever in pandemic era

Gelo Gonzales

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'Whoever has the most data will be the most powerful,' says former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower Brittany Kaiser in an upcoming Rappler Talk episode

MANILA, Philippines – As if the world didn’t have its hands full with the virus, another threat looms larger than ever in the current milieu: microtargeting or the practice of manipulating an individual’s thoughts and sentiments through disinformation tactics and the use of available personal data. 

Brittany Kaiser, former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower and author of the book, Targeted, warns that the practice becomes an even bigger threat in the pandemic era.

“Fake news using disinformation is on the exponential rise, ever since coronavirus has kept all of us at home. And it’s been even more difficult to protect ourselves because we are reading exponentially more data than we ever have before and the more data that exists about us, the easier it is to target us, to manipulate us,” Kaiser said in a Rappler Talk episode with Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa. (READ: Exclusive: PH was Cambridge Analytica’s ‘petri dish’ – whistleblower Christopher Wylie)

As people become more reliant on technology, and as they spend more time using online platforms, apps, and devices, the amount of personal information they may be unwittingly giving away increases too. With more personal information and data floating in servers and databases, the more that microtargeting becomes more effective. Coronavirus contact tracing apps can become a culprit too, with the Philippines’ own StaySafe being tagged as “borderline spyware” by IT experts. 

Elsewhere in the world, privacy concerns remain for contact tracing apps. Apple and Google have created a contact tracing platform that the two companies say is secure and private, but adoption has been sparse. In the US, Kaiser has been working with privacy experts to craft legislation, Senate Bill 8448, that the “types of data collected in order to save human life for public health purposes cannot be shared with law enforcement.” 

Data gathered from these apps can be abused not just in future disinformation and microtargeting operations, but in the immediate present, specifically against protesters, Kaiser said. 

“Whoever has the most data will be the most powerful, and therefore big corporates and governments around the world are working to become the most powerful entity by owning as much information about populations as possible,” she added. 

Bespoke messaging

“Microtargeting is what allowed all of Cambridge Analytica’s former clients in the US to target all the way down to the individual. So if I have a message specifically to Maria, you are going to see something that is totally different from me, and I can make sure that if you are someone I’m targeting to register to vote or to convince you to no longer believe in politics that I would have enough information about you to do that,” Kaiser explains. 

Through microtargeting, a politician running an online campaign – whether illicit or not – can know exactly the right buttons to push to get one to think a certain way. This is possible, in no small part, because of the information people have put up online publicly; through app-assisted data harvesting (such as harmless-looking online quizzes as in the case of Cambridge Analytica); or stolen through hacks. 

Though there is immediate concern for, say, crucial bank information leaking out, stolen data could also be used to build a profile of the person, and understand how that person can be urged to think a certain way. 

“One of the biggest problems right now is that when governments or political parties or even big companies and powerful individuals are using technology, they can decide to target a certain group of people with certain messages in a non-transparent way. [This means that] I will get shown the message that you will never be able to see. And so we are all being given completely different digital realities, which means we have a completely different idea of what the news actually is, what’s going on in the world around us,” explained Kaiser. 

This can be especially problematic for platforms that use algorithmic content delivery based on a person’s actions online. Algorithms, paired with a clear view of who a person is, can be gamed according to one’s goals. (READ: Want data privacy? Here’s how to protect your personal information online)

“I think one of the most important things to understand about the ways that these tools are weaponized by governments is that if you have enough data, you can achieve whatever goals you are trying to get to. Because you can have a different communication strategy for every single person in your country, and you can know enough about them that you can persuade certain people that you’re an individual principal on one topic, and then you can drive the whole other part of your society to believe you stand for something else altogether and that’s the scariest part, I would say,” said Kaiser.

“My most important piece of advice to everybody is to start to take your data and your privacy very seriously…Start to think that your data is the human value that you produce every day, the most valuable asset class in the world, where you are the producer of that.”


It is only now that the public is beginning to realize how personal data is so important. It felt harmless in the days of early social media to share photos or information on, say, a Friendster or MySpace page. But certain actors, also enabled by the shortsightedness of platforms and their policies, vision, and algorithms, have been able to game the system for the benefit of the most powerful bidders, governments included.

As we await more decisive regulations, and platform changes, and amid the threat of breaches and microtargeting, users need to treat personal data as we should have from the beginning: with immense care. – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.