A slip-up by social media giant Snap allowed leading Democratic campaigns and party committees to unwittingly tap into a vast repository of Republican voter data to hone their midterm ads, Axios has learned.
Why it matters: There’s no indication Snap was aware of or facilitated that data sharing, and the company said it’s taking steps to rectify the oversight. But the blunder underscores the sensitivities surrounding reams of voter data that have become a highly valuable political commodity.
Context: On Snap and other platforms, political advertisers can target their ads to highly specific user segments — frequently relying on data brokers that hoover up information on voters’ interests, activities, spending habits and other criteria.
Driving the news: Snap’s political ad archive shows multiple Democratic and progressive organizations were able to target their ads on the platform using data maintained by the Republican-aligned firm i360.
- The firm is affiliated with the political and philanthropic network founded by billionaire Charles Koch.
- Its data was used to target Snapchat ads by groups including the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign.
- There’s no indication that any of the advertisers knew they were using i360 data or took any steps to exploit it beyond normal ad targeting decisions.
Between the lines: i360 and a Democratic counterpart, TargetSmart, make data available to other advertisers on the platform but limit availability to preapproved lists of allied organizations.
- Snap told Axios an internal oversight allowed non-approved entities — including political and ideological adversaries — to use data from both companies to target their ads.
- TargetSmart data was used to hone ads from the Daily Wire, a prominent conservative media outlet.
What they’re saying: “Unfortunately, due to an internal mistake, we didn’t follow this usual process — which resulted in these two companies’ services being used by advertisers outside of the process, impacting a small number of ads,” a Snap spokesperson told Axios.
- The spokesperson stressed that the advertisers inadvertently permitted to use those audience segments were not given access to i360’s or TargetSmart’s underlying data, or to any Snapchat user data.
- “We take full responsibility for this mistake, and as soon as we became aware of it, we took action to correct the issue, notified the two vendors, and are working to rectify payments to each of them. We are also taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” the spokesperson said.
An i360 spokesperson told Axios: “i360 did not authorize this use of its data, and its agreements with advertising platforms like Snap do not allow for the use of its political data by these organizations.”
The big picture: The Snapchat ads that used data from adversarial firms represent a tiny fraction of political advertising during the 2022 midterm cycle.
- The mixup will nonetheless spur concerns about the way valuable political data is being shared, according to Eric Wilson, a veteran Republican digital strategist.
- “i360’s Republican clients and their donors will be surprised to learn that their data is being used to help Democrats, Planned Parenthood and other opponents,” Wilson told Axios. “They should ask if and how their campaign activities were used to enhance the data provided via Snapchat.”