In September 2017, a Davidson College alumna alerted the college via a tweet that the Davidson College Alumni Association was advertising on Breitbart.
The display of promotional material for Davidson College next to the conservative and nativist rhetoric of Breitbart was not only a jarring juxtaposition, it was also completely inadvertent, an algorithmic outcome of Facebook’s advertising platform.
Journalists have recently exposed other disturbing elements of Facebook and Google’s ad networks, such as the ProPublica report that advertisers on Facebook could deliberately reach anti-Semitic audiences using targeted keywords and demographic information from Facebook’s vast data mining operations. Buzzfeed similarly showed how racist advertisers could exploit Google’s ad network. Clearly, online advertising demands further analysis from an intersectional perspective.
Justice, Equality, and Community
DIG 340 counts toward the new Justice, Equality, and Community (JEC) graduation requirement at Davidson. To satisfy this requirement, students must take at least one course that addresses “the manifestations of justice and equality in various communities, locales, nations or regions, and focus on methods and theories used to analyze, spotlight, or remedy instances of injustice and inequality.”
This next project does just that. Inspired by Davidson’s advertising mishap on Breitbart, you will explore, critique, and undermine social media ad platforms. The project is made possible thanks to funding from Davidson’s Justice, Equality, and Community grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Quite simply, the assignment is to subvert social media advertising by placing justice, equality, and community-oriented materials in timelines and websites whose users would normally not encounter that material. Imagine, for example, a sponsored ad about Colson Whitehead, Davidson’s 2018 Reynolds speaker, appearing on a white supremacist website. Or #metoo promoted posts showing up on the timelines of so-called Men’s Rights activists.
Overview of Procedure
Working in groups of 3-4, students will manage a JEC-focused ad campaign of their own design on either Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, or Google’s ad platforms. Each team will explore the contours, possibilities, and limits of social media advertising as they manage a series of campaigns with progressively larger budgets.
Groups will have a budget of $5 for their first campaign, which may only last a day. The next campaign will have a budget of $20. Groups will fine-tune their message and promotional strategy as they gear up for even bigger campaigns. The third campaign will have a budget of $50 while the final campaign will have $175 to work with.
All the while groups will critically examine the advertising apparatuses themselves, analyzing overt and implicit ideological assumptions built into the platforms. You’ll be aided in this process by Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech (2017).
On Wednesday, February 28, class will be given over entirely over to brainstorming campaign ideas. This will be a self-organizing process. Your tasks for Wednesday are the following:
- Organize into four groups.
- Decide what social media platform your group will work with. There are three major platforms to consider: Facebook (which includes Instagram), Twitter, and Google Adwords. It’s okay if more than one group uses the same platform, but no more than two groups should use the same platform. Be sure to coordinate with the other groups in this regard.
- In your group, toss around possible social media campaign ideas. What issue, question, or event around justice, equality, and community concerns do you want to promote? If no event exists that does what you want, invent one! Imagine a virtual sit-in on a single day in March to protest the movement to arm school teachers, for example.Take lots of notes!
- Think about the components of the campaign. What possible text and media could you use? Who would your audience be? Remember the goal of this project is to undermine the ad networks and find unexpected audiences for your material. Take lots of notes!
- At the end of class, one person from each group email me the following: (1) The members of your group; (2) the platform you’re working with; and (3) Initial brainstorming ideas from items 3 & 4 above.
Timeline and Synthesis
We will have weekly updates from the different groups about their campaigns throughout the month of March. Two key dates are:
- Wednesday, March 15: In-class tutorial on social media campaigns
- Tuesday, April 17: Project Synthesis due, in which you recount and analyze your findings from this project. Even though you worked in groups, each individual will hand in their own synthesis.
What should you include in the synthesis? Based on our class discussion about the synthesis, here are some suggestions:
- Connect your experience to our course readings in an explicit way.
- Consider your overarching promotion strategies. There’s no need to get bogged down in recounting the minutia of your decision-making, but do try to make some generalizations about your approach to engaging audiences.
- However, if there was a pivotal moment in your social media campaign in which things suddenly came into focus or your strategy dramatically shifted, do analyze that moment.
- Compare your expectations about social media advertising with the reality of social media.
- Think through the ethical concerns that came up in this assignment. This could be anything from the creep factor of Facebook’s data to the deliberate deception that many groups attempted.
- Analyze the platform itself. How did Facebook/Twitter/Google make some things easy and other things difficult? Hypothesize about the way the technology “used” you or forced you to conform to its protocols.
- Offer some overall conclusions about social media advertising—and by extension, social media in general.
- Finally, try to capture what you know now about social media, gender, and power that you did not know a month ago.
Your synthesis should be about 2,000 words, not including your Works Cited in a standard citation format. Include illustrative screen shots! (But don’t just drop images in without really making use of them in your discussion.)
Share the document with email@example.com by the end of the day on Tuesday, April 17.