May 11, 2017Published by: Sharmin Cheema-Kelly

Operation Facebook: How social media advertising powers political campaigns

Since the UK voted to leave the European Union last June and with the election and inauguration of President Trump, online political advertising, including on Facebook and Twitter, has increasingly been in the spotlight — and for good reason.

With the average person spending more than three years over the course of their lifetime updating social media, political battles are now being fought online and the scarce resource being fought for is users' attention.

Just as billboard and TV advertisements were once hugely important in getting messages out to the public, social media is now being used by political parties to "serve micro-targeted advertisements to highly specific groups" — a far cry from when generic ads were placed in the newspapers, at bus stops, or on posters in the underground and were accessible for all to see.

So how has this transition from traditional to social media advertising transformed politics as we know it?

Social media prowess points to political success

According to this piece in The Guardian, Vote Leave spent £2.7m with Aggregate IQ, a Canadian digital marketing firm that specialises in political campaigns, with Vote Leave director, Dominic Cummings, quoted on its website stating that the campaign "couldn't have done it (tip the scales in favour of Brexit) without them."

Meanwhile, Labour spent £16,000 on Facebook advertising in the run-up to the 2015 election which— compared to the Conservatives' £1.2m spend — is an almost negligible amount (it amounts to just 1.3% of the Tories' Facebook ad spend!). This also means that the Tories' reach was far greater, reaching 17 million people each week compared to Labour's 16 million people in its best month.

However, Labour has since come around to the power of social media advertising and claimed that it will be upping the social media ante and matching the Tories' ad spend on Facebook. It has also created its own digital tool called Promote, which allows it to target messages at specific groups in different constituencies ahead of the snap election next month.

Targeted social advertising can inspire young people to action

While online targeting is far from perfect (according to Facebook's ad preferences, I have an interest in both Leann Rimes and T-Pain - neither of whom I've listened to since I was 21. We all make questionable choices sometimes...), social media advertising allows for more targeted messages and therefore better communication between politicians and the electorate.

On the bright side, it can inspire more people, including first-time voters, to action and allows people to make better-informed decisions, especially when the messages targeted at them might help fill gaps in their own knowledge.

However, like anything else that is still developing, some degree of caution should be exercised — as Facebook advertising isn’t regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency, Ofcom or the Electoral Commission, messages in ads could be inaccurate and as they’re only targeted at specific groups, this could make fact-checking difficult.

To better understand how parties are targeting different segments of voters, The Guardian is urging its readers to screenshot ads targeted at them and to share them with the paper. As with any new technology, this kind of political promotion is testing the limits of current regulations and, with fraud cases from the last election currently going through the courts, Facebook’s ads are high on the media’s agenda.

Now that the electorate are becoming aware of this marketing tool, and parties are able to utilise it equally, will its impact be negated? The upcoming election will be a fertile testing ground for the impact that ‘dark ads’ can have on the voting public. We may see some surprises, but ultimately we’re about to learn a lot about what social advertising can really do when utilised on a national level.

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