Technology Facebook General Election

Who targets you? A look at the crowdsourced project set to scrutinise Facebook ads during the general election

By Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer

May 5, 2017 | 5 min read

A crowdsourced project aims to scrutinise the use of Facebook for targeting and advertising during the forthcoming UK general election.

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According to the Electoral Commission, political parties spent almost £1.5m on targeted Facebook advertising during the 2015 general election.

The Conservative party reported digital ad spend during the 2015 campaign of £1.21m; the Labour Party, £160,000; the Liberal Democrats £22,245; UKIP £91,000; the Green Party £20,000; and SNP £5,466. Facebook accounted for more than 99% of all investment.

Targeting through Facebook has variously been claimed to have played a key role in the outcome of the EU referendum and the US presidential election. The Trump campaign reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars funding digital advertising tailored to the individual. It’s the story of Cambridge Analytica.

The permutation of hundreds of targeting variables, and the dynamic nature of ads, means that a campaign tailored to individual voters is hidden from everyone but advertiser and recipient.

The only way to accurately scrutinise how political campaigns are using Facebook advertising is to ask Facebook users to report what they see for themselves.

A group of activists called Who Targets Me? is calling on the Electoral Commission to more closely scrutinise the issue, and apply the same level of transparency that applies in other areas of political campaigning.

"Traditionally, when you print a leaflet, there's a physical copy that's there for all to see. Online ads vanish without a trace, potentially making them a haven for the dark arts of politics. This project shines a much-needed light on the hidden side of electioneering," said Dr Seth Thevoz, a political historian at Nuffield College, Oxford University.

Analysing the aggregated data will enable the Who Targets Me? project to determine which demographics are being targeted. It will seek to draw insights from the language that campaigners are using to influence voting behaviour.

Who Targets Me? is a citizen-led non-partisan project founded by Sam Jeffers and Louis Knight-Webb.

“For the good of our democracy, it’s time to throw some light on this dark and unregulated area of campaign spending. Facebook advertising is highly targeted and tailored to the recipient, battle-tested for effectiveness, yet invisible to anyone but the end user,” said Jeffers.

“There are no spending limits on digital ads, despite strict legal controls in other areas of campaign expenditure. It gives big money a strong voice in our elections.”

Jeffers and Knight-Webb are aiming to collect data during the forthcoming general election.

They’re asking UK voters to install a Google Chrome extension that examines the ads you see in your feed and classifies them by party.

Who Targets Me? launched this week and has signed up more than 3,000 participants in 563 of the 650 constituencies across the UK.

Once installed, if you click the extension icon in the top right of your browser, you can see information about the ads you’ve been shown so far during in the election campaign.

The extension works like an ad blocker, only instead of blocking the ad altogether, it reads and categorises the ads in your feed. It doesn’t read your posts or those of your friends. It doesn’t track any personal information. The extension will automatically stop tracking data after the election on 9 June.

Alternatively, if you want to take part without installing the app, you can use this form to upload the political Facebook ads you see. Each and every time you see an ad upload it to the Who Targets Me? project.

The initiative aims to raise awareness of the scale and scope of targeted advertising in UK elections.

If is successful, it will generate much-needed data about the value of targeted digital advertising in the political sphere, and the way such ads are regulated.

The project will report its finding on its blog. Follow @whotargetsme on Twitter for further information.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

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