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The real impact of political ads on social media

By Tom Jarvis | Founder and managing director



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December 12, 2019 | 10 min read

With a UK general election just hours away, I thought it worth considering the impact of social media advertising on our political system.

Austin Distel

Wilderness question the role that social media platforms have in managing political advertising.

The 'fake news' election

The 2019 election was, according to social commentators, supposed to be the ‘Brexit election’. A one-issue debate that would define a generation. Instead, it may well be remembered as the fake news election, with all the main political parties and those on the fringes peddling misinformation and misdirection using social media.

The weaponisation of digital communication has led a campaign group made up of advertising professionals to call for better regulation on political ads. The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising says at least 31 campaigns have been “indecent, dishonest or untruthful”. Not only have all the political parties looked to peddle half-truths and propaganda on social media but they have also done this through direct mail leaflets.

Alex Tait, the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, says that the group's report highlights "a very significant problem" with the current system as political advertising falls outside the ASA regulation with electoral law stating that it "doesn't require claims in political campaigns to be truthful or factually accurate."

The runaway train

I recently appeared on The Stream, a new media program on Al Jazeera, to discuss Twitter’s ban on political advertising. It was put to me then that it is a myth that social platforms are making a lot of money from political advertising. This is (or was) true for Twitter but not for the other platforms. Digital political advertising is set to double to $2.8bn in 2020 having been almost non-existant a decade ago.

We’ve seen a deluge of online spend for this UK General Election with reports of more than £2m worth of ad spend on Facebook and Instagram over the last 30 days alone. The Tories have quadrupled their spending on Facebook in the last few days but this is still far below that of the Labour Party, which has invested heavily in Facebook advertising throughout the campaign. Reports suggest that Labour ploughed close to £1m into Facebook throughout November and they are also vastly outspending the Conservatives on Snapchat, as both leading parties advertise on the platform for the first time in a bid to win over younger voters.

Though these numbers may seem small, in the grand scheme of the billions of ad dollars Facebook, Google and others receive, the UK election laws state that spending is to be capped at £30,000 per constituency. That means, that if a party stood a candidate in each of the 650 UK constituencies, its maximum spend would total £19.5m. The Conservatives spent over £18m whilst Labour totalled £11m in 2017 during the last election campaign, so recent party spending on Facebook alone would equate to close to 10% of the total ad spend.

Not only that but shadow campaigns have been investing heavily across social platforms. In 2018, a report found that 12 of the 15 top political ad spenders on Facebook were not official campaigns; these shadow groups can have a big impact on persuading undecided voters. The FT reported that these political campaign group's spending had exceeded £500,000 in the days leading up to the election with many of these ads targeting groups between 18-34 years old. Sam Jeffers, the co-founder of Who Targets Me, commented that: “in 2015, [Labour] couldn’t get money for Facebook advertising; in 2017, they could get some but were still outspent by four to one. But everyone knows how to use Facebook now; everyone knows it’s important.”

Facebook’s disappearing act

In an act to offer more transparency, Facebook made information about political ads available through its Ad Library platform giving users and journalists more information on who was advertising and the levels of spending involved.

However, in a bizarre twist of fate just two days before the election and with political commentators and journalists keen to analyse the effect of political ads on this election, thousands of ads have mysteriously disappeared from Facebook’s Ad Library. Facebook says it is 'urgently investigating' the issue uncovered by Sky News but transparency campaigners have described the issue as a "catastrophic loss of data".

This follows a recent Guardian report that found that Google had been under-reporting its revenue from political advertising which forced the platform into making changes around the ways political groups can target individuals.

On the Facebook data loss, Tristan Hotham, a researcher with WhoTargetsMe, said: "almost all the ads from late October to early December are gone. In effect, it is deleting the data." This has huge implications on how we analyse and report on the spending on social media in the lead up to one of the most hotly-contested general elections in the UK. Hotham added: "it is clear that Facebook must do more to uphold the values of transparency that are central to running a free and fair election."

The dead cat battle of the thumbs

The dead cat strategy - the idea of a dramatic, shocking, or sensationalist story used to divert the conversation away from an another, often more damaging, topic - has been on full display online during this election. The approach, often associated with Lynton Crosby who famously worked with Boris Johnson during his London Major electoral race in 2008 has been taken on by the Conservatives in particular.

We saw this in action during the first TV debate with the Tory's press team changing their Twitter bio and photo to “FactcheckUK” and tweeting "fact checks" of Labour policies and Corbyn's statements throughout the debate. The @CCHQPress account is verified and has more than 80K followers, meaning other users will have seen the blue tick and believed their tweets to be from a credible source.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “it’s about winning at any price” admitting that the difficulty with prosecuting is that: “so much of this is legal. Much of it is just falling through the gaps of the law.”

Not only have the Tories used these tactics to mislead, as all the other major parties have done throughout the election, but a recent study found that 88% of Tory ads were misleading. The investigation ran by First Draft, a not-for-profit which debunks online misinformation, analysed ads from the main parties in the first few days of December. It found that nearly 90% of all figures used by the Tories did not match those of Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking organisation.

Ben Guerin, a political consultant with the Tory party (who helped Scott Morrison with his surprise victory as prime minister of Australia last year) said: “We’re talking anger, excitement, pride, fear. Your content should be relating to one of these emotions for anyone to give a damn about it.” At a conference in June, he said of the Conservative strategy: “how do you win the battle of the thumbs?”

The democratization of misinformation

The approach of pulling on our very primal emotions with half-truths or lies has been allowed to spread across social and their message amplified and targeted to specific audiences through paid advertising as major platforms stand by and watch. Facebook’s, and others, lack of action here has led to a fueling of the fire with political able to turbocharge their half-truths and create “the democratization of misinformation,” according to Jacob Davey, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

By continuing to allow political advertising to be unchecked by Facebook, Google, and others, these organisations are allowing their platforms to be hijacked for political gain. Which is why in this election, we have seen a tidal wave of misinformation polluting people's newsfeeds.

“This is the election where disinformation was normalized,” Mr Davey said. The effects of which could be catastrophic for generations to come.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter commented on the news of his platform's political ad ban: "we believe political message reach should be earned, not bought." If only others agreed...

Tom Jarvis, founder and managing director at Wilderness.

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