Facebook Approached Australian Political Parties To Microtarget Voters

In the wake of a massive data harvesting scandal, it has emerged that Facebook approached at least two major Australian political parties during the final weeks of their 2016 election in order to help them "microtarget" voters using a powerful data matching tool, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Facebook offered "advanced matching" as part of their so-called Custom Audience feature to both the conservative (if not confusingly named) Liberal Party, as well as the "democratic socialist" Labor Party. The tool promised to allow the parties to compare data they had collected about voters - such as names, birth dates, phone numbers, postcodes and email addresses - and match that information to Facebook profiles.

The combination of data sets would then allow political parties to target Australian swing voters with custom tailored ads over Facebook, which advertised a 17% increase in matching rates using a beta version of the service provided to the Liberal Party. 

Fairfax Media reports that while the conservative Liberal Party turned Facebook down over concerns that sending voter data overseas to Facebook servers would violate the Privacy Act and the Electoral Act, the Labor Party took Facebook up on their offer. 

Asked specifically whether Labor used the tool, a Labor spokesman said in a statement: "A range of different campaign techniques and tools are used for campaigning, from doorknocking to phone banking to online. Labor works with different groups to get our message out, including social media platforms like Facebook."

"All of our work is in complete compliance with relevant laws, including the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which makes it a criminal offence to misuse information on the electoral roll." -Sydney Morning Herald

That said, the Herald reports that the Labor Party (ALP) digital team would have "hashed" - or anonymized, any electoral roll data "on a local browser," sources tell the Herald. This would have prevented personally identifiable information to be uploaded to foreign servers. 

Both the Labor Party and Facebook sought to downplay the "advanced matching" feature. 

The Custom Audiences tool is widely used by brands and advertisers to target potential customers.

"Lots of people use the custom audience tool. Civil society groups use it too with their massive databases. I don't think it's anywhere near as sinister as people think," a Labor source said.

Facebook said in a statement: "All parties are offered the same training, materials and products - whether existing or new — at the same time. It is a decision for each campaign as to whether and how they choose to use them."

The company has this week been unable to say whether data of Australian users is hosted locally or offshore. -smh

Facebook has been contacted by Australia's privacy commissioner to with questions over Australians who may have been caught up in a massive data harvesting scandal which has unfolded over the last week - raising the possibility of sanctions against the social media giant. 

News of Facebook's attempt to help Australian political parties influence their 2016 election comes days after Mark Zuckerberg told CNN that the possibility of the social media giant influencing the 2016 U.S. election was "a pretty crazy idea." 

That's kind of interesting considering that Facebook was also helping the Obama Campaign target voters using harvested data, similar to what Cambridge Analytica was doing for several GOP candidates in the 2016 election. Obama's former campaign director admitted over Twitter that Facebook not only knew of the campaign's data harvesting to "suck out the whole social graph," but that they "didn't stop us once they realized that was what we were doing." 

And WikiLeaked emails released during the 2016 election revealed that Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg really wanted "Hillary to win badly," after Hillary came over to Sandberg's house and was "magical with her kids."

Then there's Sandberg telling John Podesta "Look forward to working with you to elect the first woman President of the United States." 

Notably, there don't seem to be any emails from Facebook executives to Trump's campaign manager with similar sentiments.