Facebook and Apple’s privacy war is mucking up voter turnout efforts

"This is bad. I didn't think it would be this bad."

"I voted" stickers
Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Tatenda Musapatike is as familiar as anyone with the way Facebook's political ad system works. During the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms, she helped Democrats run Facebook ads as a client solutions manager for the company, before leaving in 2019 and eventually launching her own nonprofit to focus on turning out voters from underrepresented groups.

So this year, when Apple introduced privacy changes that allowed iOS users to opt out of being tracked by apps, including Facebook, Musapatike knew better than most that the switch would be hard on Facebook's political advertisers.

She had no idea it would be this hard.

In a new report released Thursday by Musapatike's organization, Voter Formation Project, the group found that in the run-up to Election Day this year there was a precipitous decline in the percentage of conversion ads Facebook was serving to iOS users. Conversion ads are ads that ask users to go to the advertiser's website and take an action. In politics, that can mean asking them to fill out a form, commit to vote or even to donate. According to the Voter Formation Project report, not only was a smaller slice of the group's conversion ads reaching iOS users than before, but the cost of driving people to the website also shot up to an average of $424 per conversion — more than three times what Musapatike said she would have expected during an off-year election.

"Having worked at Facebook itself for years, it's hard to surprise me," Musapatike said. "This kind of set off a panic. This is bad. I didn't think it would be this bad."

Since the 2016 election, when President Trump's campaign aggressively used conversion ads to fundraise, political advertisers of all stripes have leaned into this type of advertising as a core part of their digital strategies. Musapatike's organization, for one, was using conversion ads to send potential voters in Texas and Virginia to the Voter Formation Project website to make a plan to vote.

Facebook started warning advertisers that Apple's privacy changes would be a blow before Apple even rolled them out. Voter turnout groups like Musapatike's were no exception. "Our system is built to deliver ads to people who will find them most relevant, regardless of the device they are using," a Meta spokesperson said. "As we've said over the past year, Apple's changes make it harder to do that for some iOS users, which is negatively impacting small businesses, organizations and developers."

The idea that Facebook might not actually be showing these ads to iOS users at the same rate set off immediate alarm bells for Musapatike and her team. They began digging into the data and found that there was a substantial discrepancy between the percentage of conversion ads being delivered to Android users versus Apple users.

Before the iOS change, more than 60% of the group's conversion ads on Facebook were delivered to iOS devices. After the privacy update, that figure was just under 37%.

Image: Voter Formation Project

The drop-off in iOS impressions Musapatike's team observed was specific to conversion ads. Ads with other goals like, say, getting the broadest reach, were still being delivered to more iOS devices than Android. And even though companies like Snap are also struggling with Apple's privacy changes, the impact on iOS users wasn't appearing on other platforms. (The report acknowledges that could be because some platforms don't report impressions by device type.)

Image: Voter Formation Project

Still, even if other platforms were having the same issue, it wouldn't matter as much as it did on Facebook, Musapatike said. Facebook is where political advertisers had the most success with conversion ads before the iOS update, so it's also where a drop-off would hurt the most. "Facebook had, when I was there, roughly 90% of the conversion market of ads in politics, period," Musapatike said. "It was the most efficient place you could get donations or sign-ups."

'Let them click'

The question is: Why did this happen? The report accuses Facebook of "suppress[ing] delivery to devices that are more likely to block its ability to track the conversion action." Meta's spokesperson insisted that wasn't a deliberate decision on the company's part and said Facebook's automated ad system simply targets the users it predicts are most ripe for conversion on any given ad.

The problem is, those predictions are based on clicks — clicks that Facebook can't see clearly now on iOS, because it's not getting data back from users' devices. So the system appears to be overlooking them. That's not to say iOS users aren't receiving any ads; other types of ads that don't depend on third-party data from devices don't face the same problem.

Facebook, of course, would like to blame Apple for this issue, and it's true that the type of unbridled third-party tracking political advertisers have traditionally done is precisely the sort of thing Apple is trying to prevent. But the inability to see exactly who clicked through a conversion ad isn't itself an insurmountable challenge for advertisers, Musapatike said. In her case, even if there's no data exchanged between the device and Facebook, it wouldn't be so hard to figure out how many people filled out a form on her website after she ran a Facebook ad campaign asking people to do so.

But she can't do any of that if Facebook isn't showing iOS users her conversion ads to begin with. "If you're going to ask most advertisers, we'd say: 'Put our ads in front of these people and let them click,'" Musapatike said. "Even if you're not getting as much data back from these devices, that doesn't mean putting your ads in front of them or getting them to fill out your form isn't valuable."

Meta's spokesperson pointed to public statements the company has made both on its blogs and in earnings calls related to conversion issues in light of the iOS update. Specifically, the company has said it believes it's underreporting actual conversions by 15%, which may be leading to the higher costs per conversion that Musapatike saw. In other words, advertisers may actually be getting more conversions for their money. But that has little to do with whether Facebook is actually showing these ads to begin with.

The company has also recently introduced a new API for conversions that it said will "help businesses optimize ad targeting, decrease cost per action and measure results."

As for Musapatike, after realizing where conversion ads were falling short, her team began investing in lead generation ads on Facebook, which still enable Facebook users to fill out a form without ever leaving the platform. Those ads don't afford her the flexibility of directing people to her own website, but at least they're getting seen.

It's still unclear exactly how the ad changes impacted actual turnout in crucial states like Texas and Virginia. Those calculations take voter data that won't be available for months. But as the 2022 midterms draw closer, Musapatike's team is already reassessing where and how they'll spend their money. "I do not know the exact mechanism as to what's behind it," Musapatike said, but for advertisers like herself, at least, it means "if you're running a campaign where you want people to go to your website, it is less likely to happen through Facebook."

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

While there remains debate among economists about whether we are officially in a full-blown recession, the signs are certainly there. Like most executives right now, the outlook concerns me.

In any case, businesses aren’t waiting for the official pronouncement. They’re already bracing for impact as U.S. inflation and interest rates soar. Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022 — the highest increase since November 1981 — and the Federal Reserve is targeting an interest rate of 3% by the end of this year.

Keep Reading Show less
Nancy Sansom

Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.


SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


These two AWS vets think they can finally solve enterprise blockchain

Vendia, founded by Tim Wagner and Shruthi Rao, wants to help companies build real-time, decentralized data applications. Its product allows enterprises to more easily share code and data across clouds, regions, companies, accounts, and technology stacks.

“We have this thesis here: Cloud was always the missing ingredient in blockchain, and Vendia added it in,” Wagner (right) told Protocol of his and Shruthi Rao's company.

Photo: Vendia

The promise of an enterprise blockchain was not lost on CIOs — the idea that a database or an API could keep corporate data consistent with their business partners, be it their upstream supply chains, downstream logistics, or financial partners.

But while it was one of the most anticipated and hyped technologies in recent memory, blockchain also has been one of the most failed technologies in terms of enterprise pilots and implementations, according to Vendia CEO Tim Wagner.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.


Kraken's CEO got tired of being in finance

Jesse Powell tells Protocol the bureaucratic obligations of running a financial services business contributed to his decision to step back from his role as CEO of one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kraken is going through a major leadership change after what has been a tough year for the crypto powerhouse, and for departing CEO Jesse Powell.

The crypto market is still struggling to recover from a major crash, although Kraken appears to have navigated the crisis better than other rivals. Despite his exchange’s apparent success, Powell found himself in the hot seat over allegations published in The New York Times that he made insensitive comments on gender and race that sparked heated conversations within the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories