The spread of misinformation on social media platforms has fueled division, stoked violence, and reshaped geopolitics in recent years. Targeted ads have become a major battleground, with bad actors strategically distributing misleading information or ensnaring unassuming users in scams. Facebook has worked to eliminate or redefine certain targeting categories as part of a broader effort to address these threats. But despite warnings from researchers, its ad system still lets anyone target a massive array of populations and groups—including campaigns directed at United States military personnel. Currently categories for major branches include “Army,” “Air Force,” and “National Guard,” along with much narrower categories like “United States Air Force Security Forces.”
At first blush it may seem innocuous that you can target ads at these groups as easily as you can most other organizations. But independent security researcher Andrea Downing says the stakes are much higher should active duty members of the US military—many of whom would likely get caught up in broader Facebook targeting of this sort—face misinformation online that could impact their understanding of world events or expose them to scams. While Downing hasn’t detected such malicious campaigns herself, the interplay between ads and misinformation on Facebook is consistently murky.
In the wake of the Capitol riots, for example, researchers at the Tech Transparency Project found that Facebook’s systems had shown ads for military equipment like body armor and gun holsters alongside updates on the insurrection and content that promoted election misinformation. Even when lawmakers called on Facebook to halt military equipment ads, and the company agreed to a temporary ban, some ads still seemed to be slipping by.
“Through the ad targeting system on Facebook, I could craft ads or send direct messages to current and former military through large umbrella categories or more granular permutations,” says Downing. “A nation state actor could abuse this to run influence operations against US military members at a large scale or in a more targeted way.”
There are roughly 1.3 million active duty United States military members and 18 million veterans living in the US, all of which could amount to as much as $1.2 trillion in buying power, according to the marketing firm SheerID. Facebook gives the option to run targeted ads based on the job titles and employers users list, as well as “interests,” which it draws from user activity like clicking a relevant ad or liking a page. In both cases, that includes military branches. For job titles, that would include retired personnel who still reference that experience in their profiles but also active duty members who have filled out that field. In addition to regular targeting, Facebook offers tools for advertisers to reach out to users through its Messenger chat platform.
Many tech giants make their money from ads and offer similar features to facilitate targeted marketing. Google’s and Twitter’s platforms do not offer granular military categories, though.
“Let’s say you have younger service members, regardless of the branch of the military, and they’re deployed away from their family and looking for some sort of kinship. Facebook offers that,” says Bill Hagestad, an independent security engineer at Red Dragon 1949 and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. “So targeted ads could allow malevolent individuals to use the lingo, embed themselves favorably, and manipulate service members regardless of age or rank. And this could compromise operational security, which is as important as the safety of those being manipulated themselves.”
Downing, who is also a cofounder of the social media health support nonprofit The Light Collective, says she first attempted to notify Facebook about her concerns in December 2019 through informal connections. Within days, she says, Facebook had removed many of the military ad-targeting groups she had highlighted. The issue seemed resolved. At the end of August 2020, though, she noticed that many of these targeting groups had reemerged, even after Facebook pruned its military categories in mid-August. “We’ve combined several options representing military bases or regiments, because the specific interests were rarely used, and instead, advertisers can still reach an audience with an interest in the military,” Facebook wrote at the time.