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Are Targeted Political Ads Deceiving Voters?

Use this lesson plan to help students think critically about political ads on social media.

Jeff Knutson | October 7, 2020

During an election season, we might take political ads for granted. From roadside billboards and yard signs to wall-to-wall TV and radio commercials, we might be able to tune them out. But can we simply ignore the targeted political ads that show up in our social media feeds?

Social media companies collect huge amounts of data from us, then sell that data to advertisers. This is of course why we end up seeing personalized ads when we're online -- ads tailor-made to tap into our specific personalities, preferences, and even fears. Many of these ads miss the mark, but sometimes they get it right. We might even catch ourselves wondering, "How did they know I was just thinking about that?!"

When social media companies sell our data to political advertisers, the stakes get a lot higher. Many political campaigns use a tactic called "microtargeting" to send very specific messages to different voters. But how much can one politician promise? And can these ads actually persuade someone to vote for a certain candidate? In some cases, the worst of these ads might use disinformation or lies to damage a political opponent or -- even worse -- enable voter suppression.

Use this lesson plan to help your students think critically about the impact of targeted advertising on social media -- both during an election season and in general.

Recommended for:

Grades: 8-12
Subjects: Digital citizenship, journalism, social studies, ELA

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (8-18 minutes):

Before screening the video, give your students an essential question to focus their viewing: "Are targeted political ads on social media a threat to democracy and fair elections?"

If you haven't already, distribute the handout and ask students to use it to take notes as they watch. Explain that they can fill in the columns for "What's going on?" and "What makes you say that?" at any point during or after the video.

Show the video "Political Ads: Selling the Truth?" Consider pausing at various points throughout and/or screening the video more than once to aid in students' understanding. 

Political Ads on Social Media: Selling the Truth?

Discussion (20 minutes):

Start by asking students to share what they wrote in their video notes. What’s going on with the issues of political brands, microtargeting, and voter suppression? What evidence do they have for this?

Then, focus the discussion around the political ads they've seen -- both online and elsewhere. It may be helpful to ask a few questions and/or clarify how online advertisements work differently from ads we see elsewhere in the world (like a billboard or a broadcast TV ad). Continue the discussion using any or all of the questions below:

  • Do you think targeted advertising on social media is effective? If not, why do you think advertisers and politicians use this tactic so frequently?
  • Should politicians "brand" themselves in the same way companies brand their products for consumers?
  • Why might a political candidate want to send different advertisements to different voters? 
  • Is it ethical for political campaigns to use microtargeting as a tactic to persuade voters?
  • How might persuading people to not vote be advantageous to a politician or political campaign?
  • Many advertisements, whether for products or for politicians, appeal to viewers' emotions, like their hopes and fears. Do you think this is an effective way to persuade people? Regardless of how effective it might be, do you feel like this is a responsible tactic for political campaigns to use during an election?

Possible follow-ups

  • Teach the lesson "Challenging Confirmation Bias" from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
  • For more detail, read the article "A Lie Just for You in 2020" by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, one of the experts highlighted in the video, and discuss whether or not you agree or disagree with her argument.
  • For a deep dive on the mechanics and rules around targeted political advertising, read the article from Vox titled "Why Are You Seeing This Digital Political Ad? No One Knows!"
  • Reflection activity: Ask your students to monitor their social media feeds and observe the different targeted advertisements they're receiving -- for products and/or political campaigns. Students should record their observations and interpret why they think they're being targeted with the ads they're seeing. Once back in class, have students compare notes, share their interpretations, and further discuss the ethics of targeted advertising on social media.