A video of Labour supporters revealing they plan to vote Conservative because of Jeremy Corbyn is the most prominent advert being deployed by the Tories on Facebook, a campaign group tracking targeted political advertising has found.
Who Targets Me? was set up ahead of the June 8 vote against the backdrop of social media campaigning having a huge influence on the EU referendum and the US election, and is auditing thousands if ads it has been sent by an army of Facebook voters.
The two prominent Leave campaign groups during last year’s EU referendum poured huge resources in to social media targeting.
The official Vote Leave campaign spent £3.5m on recruiting Canadian tech company AggregateIQ (AIQ), which specialises in highly-targeted Facebook advertising, the Telegraph reported. Meanwhile, the Observer is investigating the connection between the unofficial Leave.EU campaign and online profiling specialists Cambridge Analytica.
Yet unlike TV and doorstep advertising, the equivalent on Facebook in particular faces little regulation and minimal media scrutiny. This is despite claims from some campaigners that misleading Facebook ads pose a greater threat than ‘fake news’.
Who Targets Me? is crowdsourcing data to expose the full extent of the practice and the pervasiveness of so-called ‘dark ads’ - advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients.
It is gathering data on what messages the main political parties are inserting in to voters’ Facebook feeds, which is based on personal information they have already made public online.
To do this, Who Targets Me? is encouraging volunteers to add their free software to a Google Chrome browser.
The campaign - set up by Sam Jeffers and Louis Knight-Webb - was only launched in the week the general election was called, but is already being sent thousands of political adverts a day that have been uniquely targeted. It also has volunteers in the vast majority of constituencies.
The next step is collaborating with researchers at the London School of Economics, analysing the data to determine who is sending what and why.
“It’s a difficult job to group and categorise: are they one-off groups, is that part of an established party, are the unions funding this?,” Knight-Webb tells HuffPost UK, adding its difficult to tell how truthful ads are at this stage.
“The data isn’t there for the government to audit campaigns. We are creating the data that researchers and journalists can hold them accountable with.”
While the campaign is yet to publicise many of its findings, Who Targets Me? has revealed some early results.
Labour appears to be sending out more adverts than the Conservatives, with the party accounting for around 53 per cent of the ads logged.
However, Knight-Webb suspects this might reflect the demographics of their volunteers and how Labour may not want to be outspent by the Conservative Party as it was in 2015, when the Tories lavished £1.2 million on Facebook ads. Plus, a social media blitz is unlikely to be launched by most parties until the final weeks of the campaign.
Knight-Webb also reveals the most common advert being pushed by the Conservatives is an 18-second clip of reporter Adam Fleming questioning traditional Labour voters, which featured on the BBC’s Politics Show.
The voters reveal they are switching to the Conservatives because of Jeremy Corbyn. “I’m still a Labour person but I’m not voting for someone who won’t put bullets in our guns for our army,” one says. The message squares with the wider Tory campaign highlighting Corbyn and his avowedly left-wing positions, and how it is targeting marginal seats in Labour’s midlands and northern heartlands.
“Literally every advert the Conservatives have released has been a video,” says Knight-Webb. “This is the one with the most views and the one that has popped up on our radar the most.”
He says the trend of the Conservatives highlighting the prospect of a Labour win - a tactic featuring in local newspaper ads in a bid to get its core vote out - has not emerged as yet. The other Tory advert featuring the Labour leader claims voters have a choice between “a leader who supports our armed forces or one who wants to abolish them”.
By contrast, Labour appears to have opted for a more traditional attack ad: the TV party political broadcast fronted by actor Maxine Peake, which is the party’s Facebook ad most logged by volunteers so far. It highlights the negative impact on schools and the NHS of a Conservative government and ends with the campaign’s slogan: ‘For the many, not the few’.
As for the Lib Dems, its most prominent Facebook advert, Who Targets Me? says, is a call from leader Tim Farron to take part in a survey to find out “what you think about Brexit”, reflecting its focus on Remain-supporting voters.
So far, Knight-Webb says political parties appear to be “playing by the rules”. But it’s what he calls the “spin-off groups” that are sponsoring ads where it becomes more unclear: individuals or groups who back a movement rather than a party, and may put money behind ads for individual candidates who take a particular view.
Knight-Webb suspects “traditional party flags” in marginal constituencies are “dead”, and more focus is being placed on the messages that area is susceptible to. He argues: “Manifestos should be open. But everyone is being shown a different manifesto.”