Tech Industry Insiders See Hypocrisy in Dem Questioning on Facebook

'These senators are happy participants when tracking benefits their campaigns'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg / Getty Images

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Experts in Silicon Valley's tech industry said it was difficult watching Democrats vilify Facebook tracking tools knowing full well most of them are using the very tools they criticized to aid their reelection efforts.

Democrats took sharp aim at Facebook during testimony this week by CEO Mark Zuckerberg for tracking user activity.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) warned during the first day of hearings that "none of us are going to have any privacy anymore" because of Facebook and complained that discussing his love of chocolate on the site led to chocolate ads. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said users should be notified of "what information Facebook is collecting, who they are sending it to, and whether they asked me in advance my permission to do that."

It was quickly pointed out by Mike Millican, a longtime digital strategist for Republican campaigns, that both the Democratic senators and most of their colleagues are actively employing the Facebook tracking devices they were criticizing.

Hidden on the campaign websites of both Nelson and Durbin is something called a Facebook pixel, a device in a website's code that allows campaigns advertising on Facebook to track how many people are navigating to the website from Facebook and what they are doing once they get there. The campaigns are then able to create audiences and retarget them based on what worked before.

There is no notification on either site that a Facebook pixel is tracking your activity, but using tools such as Ghostery, a browser plug-in that scans code on sites you visit and alerts you what trackers have been added, makes it easy to determine where a Facebook pixel is installed.

The pixels are put there by whoever built the campaign websites, not by Facebook.

"Somebody from the campaign would have to know that the Facebook pixel was placed there," a tech industry insider explained to the Free Beacon. "Adding a pixel to an external site is not something that Facebook has the ability to do or an interest in doing."

Millican began pointing out all the Democrats questioning using Facebook pixels on their sites not to expose them for doing something unethical but rather to point out the hypocrisy of their questioning.

"It's not that Democrats are doing anything unethical, it's that they're all hypocrites," Millican explained. "It's still on all of their websites, and they know it."

"This is pretty basic level stuff, it's nothing malicious," he said. "Everyone utilizes Facebook tracking. This is standard operating procedure across the board."

The hypocrisy was also apparent to tech industry insiders who work in the business of targeting ads to people who actually have an interest in seeing them.

"It was very accusatory at Facebook but these are all common practices and these senators are willing participants by putting the trackers on their own websites," one insider said. "These senators are happy participants when tracking benefits their campaigns."

"Presenting ad tracking as creepy and invasive while their campaigns are doing all of those things is hypocritical," the insider said.

The offices of both Nelson and Durbin failed to respond to inquiries into whether the senators were aware that they have Facebook pixels on their campaign websites. Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.,) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), who both use Facebook pixels for their campaigns, also failed to respond to questions.

Millican also called out the Democratic National Committee, which doesn't appear to have a Facebook pixel on its page but was found to be using a Facebook social graph, the same tool used by both Cambridge Analytica and President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign to scrape user data from the site.

The reason Cambridge Analytica found itself in hot water, Millican explained, was because it used the tool "under the auspices of academic research when really it was for politics."

Nearly all of the House Democrats who questioned Zuckerberg this week were also found to use either a Facebook pixel or a similar tool to track constituent activity.

Many argue that targeted ads are a good thing for both advertiser and consumer, or in the case of campaign, a potential donor or voter.

"This is a good thing for users, because it allows them to receive more relevant advertising," explained one tech insider.

"The goal for Facebook is to provide users with advertising experience catered to their interest," the insider said. "The goal for the campaign is to provide potential voters with engaging material."

Brent Scher   Email Brent | Full Bio | RSS
Brent Scher is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He graduated from the University of Virginia, where he studied foreign affairs and politics.

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