In the 12 months before the 2015 U.K. election, the Conservative party spent around £1.2 million (CAD $2.13 million) on Facebook advertising, and a further £312,033 (CAD $553,000) on Google ads. The figures from the Labour party were much different. According to BuzzFeed, Labour spent anywhere from as little as £16,400 (CAD $29,000) on Facebook ads to as much as around £130,000—along with just £371 (CAD $658) on Google ads. Did that influence the surprise Conservative majority government?
Facebook was quick to suggest it might have, citing the Conservative 2015 win as a “success story” whilst promoting the site’s ability to target ads to voters. “In a tightly contested election, the U.K. political party combined powerful creative with Facebook’s targeting tools to achieve what the pollsters and media had universally predicted to be impossible: a win by outright majority.”
Whether that’s just keen self-promotion, or whether those Facebook ads really were what won it, is perhaps up for debate. But one thing remains clear, two years later: the regulations governing political ads online in the U.K. haven’t changed much in the interim. As in 2015, political parties in the U.K. will eventually have to disclose how much they spent on ads, but they still won’t have to say how they targeted that spending, including on whom, where, and with what information.
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“You can pay Facebook to target users with messaging, and no one is monitoring what that messaging is,” Damian Collins, the head of the U.K.’s parliamentary committee on culture, media, and sport (and a Conservative MP) told the Guardianin April. Britain’s election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, “can adjudicate on whether disinformation has been deliberately spread by a mainstream political party, but a lot of this campaign activity will go relatively unseen. Nobody at Facebook is checking what information is being put out there,” Collins said.
Sam Jeffers, a former employee of Blue State Digital, the digital strategy and fundraising firm that worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and which helped Labour in that 2015 election, says the unregulated nature of political ads on Facebook is indeed troubling.
“Facebook is new money in British elections,” Jeffers says. “Here we have this completely new source of communication, paid communication … where the parties have essentially an unlimited amount of money they can spend to target people in what certain way they feel like. And no one has ever really talked about it. There is no discussion as to whether this is something we want to have happen or not.”
Jeffers teamed up with Louis Knight-Webb, product manager at a site called Represent.me, an online voting platform that—among other things—helps show voters how they align with parties on issues, to bring some clarity to political ad buying. Together, they founded WhoTargetsMe.
WhoTargetsMe is a Chrome extension (which users download as an add-on to the Google-based browser). Once downloaded, WhoTargetsMe works like an ad blocker, only rather than blocking the ad, it collects information about it and classifies the ad by party. When users click on the WhoTargetsMe icon at the top of their browser, they see that information—and thus have a better idea of which parties are targeting them throughout the campaign. (Users can also fill out a form if they don’t want to install the extension.)
While WhoTargetsMe doesn’t automatically collect users’ data, the developers behind it do ask a few questions about age demographic, gender, and the location of its volunteers to gain a better understanding of why they saw the ad they did.
“It won’t be as sophisticated by asking those three questions as the parties are likely to target, but we’ll be able to get some broad trends about which types of ads are being used to reach which groups, the general volume of advertising we’re seeing from the parties,” says Jeffers. “And then obviously, because we’ll have the specific ads, we’ll also be able to review the content of those ads and look at things that, again, are fairly new in British politics—things like really negative attack ads.”
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Sophisticated political ads are becoming a significant part of modern elections—perhaps more important an influencing factor on voters than so-called “fake news”, the misinformation posts that garnered so much attention both before and after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November 2016.
We may think that we could clearly recognize a political ad on Facebook, as it would carry a party logo; but even if we did, we may not be aware of the volume advertising. Given the nature of Facebook’s News Feed—an ever-updating, endless scroll of posts tailored to what the site’s algorithm thinks we’ll enjoy seeing—people may not notice that, over time, they start to see more ads from one party than another.
Facebook does, for the record, make it possible to discover why ads have shown up in a user’s feed; one simply has to click on a little arrow in the top right corner of the ad. But, Jeffers says, “it’s not obvious.”
And in some instances, it might also not be immediately obvious who placed the ad.
In Canada, for example, Elections Canada stipulates that election advertising online must include a statement of authorization “in or on the message” from the party’s chief agent (the person in charge of any party’s financial transactions). However, in the event that it “cannot be included on the advertising message itself … because of its size,” Elections Canada still considers the requirement met if that authorization statement “is made immediately apparent to the viewer by following the link” in the ad.
In other words, if a user doesn’t click through from Facebook—perhaps only scanning the post—they might not be totally certain where the ad came from.
It raises another issue that Collins, the U.K. MP, alluded to. He wondered what might happen if the information voters are seeing on Facebook is being placed “not by political parties but by proxy organizations using these tools to spread disinformation and to sway voters?”
Similarly to Elections Canada, the U.K.’s Electoral Commission requires third parties to register and track what they spend while promoting a particular party or candidate. But again, the details of those ads—both how they were targeted and the content itself—is not something either electoral governing body collects, nor publishes.
Could a foreign entity, not registered in either country, place political-styled ads on Facebook, targeted to voters? It is not obvious that they could not. (Elections Canada did not answer that question directly, providing instead the rules surrounding third-party spending during elections, which apply only to groups or people registered in Canada.) However, it’s possible that if an ad made defamatory or inaccurate claims – the kind of things normally in contravention of election advertising guidelines – it might be investigated.
Would Facebook allow such a thing? Again, it’s not entirely clear. Facebook’s general advertising guidelines state only that ads “must not contain content that exploits controversial political or social issues for commercial purposes.”
Jeffers and others have suggested that Facebook (and Google) could proactively take on the same task that WhoTargetsMe is currently trying to fulfill—that is, they could provide users with more transparency for political ads. But Facebook treats advertising from political parties, and the details of those ad placements, the same as it does ads from a private corporation – that is to say, they are kept private. The onus for openness is therefore on the parties.
The issue of targeted ads, Jeffers says, “opens up really interesting questions about what’s free and fair and what the influence of money is in elections here.”
“These campaigns are meant to be open and transparent and a fair fight in terms of debate for our vote and our mind, and here we have things where one very small part of the population might be seeing something very specific,” he says.
“You can’t get a national message out there and miss all people under 30. On Facebook, you just set that as a parameter, and no one under 30 will see your ads. That’s the question, right?” Jeffers asks, rhetorically. “How can a party govern without trying to persuade some group of people—young people, men, women whatever it is, whoever they think is [not] going to vote for them. I think that stuff is problematic.”
This piece was amended on May 10 to reflect a response from Facebook.