After the 2012 election, President Barack Obama's digital campaign director Teddy Goff told Time magazine that a tool allowing Obama for America to access the Facebook friends of its supporters "will wind up being the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for this campaign." This is the final election year that technology will be available.
At its F8 Developers Conference in April, Facebook introduced updates to the feature allowing people to login to other websites using Facebook credentials. With those changes came the end of a tool that made it easy for political groups -- and any other app developer -- to tap into supporters' Facebook Friends lists.
The feature was used famously by the 2012 Obama campaign to help supporters readily connect with and contact their Facebook friends to remind them to vote. This election season the Republican National Committee, Democratic National Committee and the conservative Koch Brothers-affiliated group, Americans for Prosperity are using it to enable get-out-the-vote apps.
"It gets rid of one kind of grassroots outreach tool and one that was pretty handy to reach certain types of voters," said Colin Delany, a digital strategy consultant serving advocacy and political clients on the left. "It was good for reaching people on your voter list that you were having trouble finding through any other means, particularly people who are under 30, who move around a lot and have mobile phones."
"We made this change because we heard from people that they want more control over the information they give to apps," said a Facebook spokeswoman. "Previously, when people logged into apps with Facebook, the app received their friend list by default. With the new version of login, which we announced at F8 this April, people have the choice whether an app gets their friend list."
Now, apps can only access information associated with an app user's friends if those friends have also explicitly agreed to share it with the same app. Apps that access friend lists according to Facebook's old rules will need to upgrade permissions by May 1, 2015.
"Congratulations -- you have 4 friends in the top 10 Senate battleground states!" reads the DNC's Impact app after accessing a user's list of Facebook friends. Before downloading the app, people must approve collection of friend lists, in addition to their own Facebook profile data such as hometown and birthdate.
The Americans for Prosperity app notifies users of progress as it filters through their Facebook friends and applies scores to each, intended to rate that person's likelihood to "support economic freedom" -- or vote Republican.
The GOP's Voter to Voter app asks for permission to gather a supporter's public profile, email address, birthday, likes, friend list and friends' birthdays. "Thank you for pledging to vote in this year's elections! It looks like some of your friends would vote Republican. Select up to three friends that you will challenge to vote this year. Then share that you pledged to vote and your challenge to friends on Facebook now."
When it comes to determining who among someone's Facebook friends is likely to vote one way or another, these systems have varying degrees of success.
"It is a little creepy, but it's certainly data that people like me are interested in especially for [Get Out The Vote]," said Steve Olson, senior strategist at progressive digital shop Trilogy Interactive, regarding the Facebook technology. The agency has built tools for Facebook that access friend lists. Facebook has "been hit so much over the last few years on privacy," he said, suggesting Facebook's decision to kill the feature is understandable.
American Crossroads, the conservative advocacy group backed by Karl Rove, no longer needs to tap Facebook friend data to enable its GOTV app, which was built by Targeted Victory, the consulting and ad tech firm that ran digital operations for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Rather than asking to retrieve Facebook friend lists, the system connects with voter data supplied by Data Trust, the firm that partners with the RNC to manage its data operations.
Kelly Nallen, digital director for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, said Crossroads doesn't focus on list-building, so connecting to friend lists is not as important as having better integration with actual voter data through Data Trust. "It was certainly a great tool that Facebook had, and I'm sure a lot of people will be sad to see it go," she said.
"We're just using [Data Trust's] base voter file to try to speed up the process for people," said Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory.
NGP VAN, which operates the most pervasive tech platforms used by Democrats, has developed new tools that should help political groups on the left circumvent the Facebook fallout. The firm's Recruiter technology, for instance, uses Democratic voter data to help organizations including Ready for Hillary make connections among supporters and predict their likelihood to donate or take other actions.
"Because we've developed all these other features of the Action Center like Recruiter and Social Fundraising, the Facebook API change won't impact NGP VAN or our clients in any critical way," said Stu Trevelyan, CEO and president of NGP VAN.