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The real impact of political advertising on social media


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

The ‘fake news’ choice

According to social commentators, the 2019 election should be the “Brexit election”. A one-topic debate that would define a generation. Instead, it is well remembered that it was the fake news poll, with all major political parties and those on the fringes spreading misinformation and misleading via social media.

The armament of digital communication has resulted in a campaign group made up of advertising professionals calling for better regulation of political advertising. The Coalition for Political Advertising Reform says at least 31 campaigns were “indecent, dishonest or untrue”. Not only have all political parties tried to spread half-truths and propaganda on social media, but they have also done so by dropping leaflets out there.

Alex Tait, co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, says the group’s report highlights “a very significant problem” with the current system, as political advertising is outside of the ASA regulation with electoral laws that say it “doesn’t require that assertions in political campaigns be truthful or factually correct. “

The runaway train

I recently performed on The Stream, a new one Al Jazeera media program to discuss banning political advertising on Twitter. At the time, it was assumed that it was a myth that social platforms make a lot of money with political advertising. This applies (or was) to Twitter, but not to the other platforms. Digital political advertising is set to double to $ 2.8 billion in 2020 after almost non-existent a decade ago.

We have seen a spate of online spending on this UK general election with reports of over £ 2 million worth of advertising spending on Facebook and Instagram in the last 30 days alone. The Tories have quadrupled their spending on Facebook in the past few days, but this is still far below that of the Labor Party, which invested heavily in Facebook advertising throughout the campaign. Labor reportedly invested nearly £ 1m in Facebook in November, far outperforming the Conservatives for Snapchat, as both leading parties are campaigning on the platform for the first time to attract younger voters.

While these numbers may seem small, under the billions of advertising dollars received by Facebook, Google and others, UK electoral laws see spending capped at £ 30,000 per constituency. This means that if a party ran in each of the UK’s 650 constituencies, its maximum spending would be £ 19.5 million. The Conservatives spent over £ 18 million in the last election campaign in 2017, while Labor spent a total of £ 11 million in 2017.

Not only that, but shadow campaigns have invested heavily across all social platforms. In 2018, a report found that 12 of the top 15 political advertisers on Facebook were not official campaigns; These shadow groups can go a long way in convincing undecided voters. The FT reported that spending by this political campaign group had exceeded £ 500,000 in the days leading up to the elections, with many of these ads targeting groups between the ages of 18 and 34. Sam Jeffers, the co-founder of Who Targets Me, commented, “2015 [Labour] couldn’t get money for Facebook advertising; In 2017 they were able to get something, but they were still outperformed by four to one. But everyone now knows how to use Facebook; Everyone knows it’s important. “

Facebook’s disappearance act

To provide more transparency, Facebook has made information about political ads available through its Ad Library platform, which gives users and journalists more information about who was advertising and how much they are spending.

Yet in a bizarre twist of fortune just two days before the election, and with political commentators and journalists eager to analyze the impact political ads had on that election, thousands of ads have mysteriously disappeared from Facebook’s advertising library. Facebook says it is “urgently investigating” the problem uncovered by Sky News, but transparency activists have labeled the problem a “catastrophic data loss”.

This follows a recent Guardian report that found that Google under-reported its political advertising revenue, forcing the platform to make changes to the way political groups can target individuals.

Regarding Facebook data loss, Tristan Hotham, a researcher at WhoTargetsMe said, “Almost all ads from late October to early December are gone. In the end, the data will be deleted.” This has a huge impact on how we analyze and report on social media spending in the run-up to one of the UK’s most competitive general elections. Hotham added, “It is clear that Facebook needs to do more to uphold the values ​​of transparency that are central to conducting free and fair elections.”

The dead cat fight of the thumbs

The dead cat strategy – the idea of ​​a dramatic, shocking, or sensationalist story used to divert the conversation away from another, often more damaging, topic – was fully flaunted online during this election. The approach often associated with Lynton Crosby, who is known to work with Boris Johnson during his 2008 London Major campaign, has been adopted by the Conservatives in particular.

We saw this in action during the first TV debate when the Tory press team changed their Twitter bio and photo to “FactcheckUK” and tweeted “fact checks” of Labor politics and Corbyn’s statements throughout the debate. The @CCHQPress account is verified and has 80,000+ followers, which means that other users saw the blue check mark and believed their tweets were from a credible source.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said, “It’s about winning at all costs,” admitting that the trouble with law enforcement is that “so much of it is legal. Much of it just falls through the loopholes in the law. ”

Not only did the Tories use these tactics to mislead, as all other major parties did during the election, but a recent study found that 88% of Tory ads were misleading. The investigation by First Draft, a nonprofit that exposes misinformation on the Internet, analyzed advertisements from key parties in the first few days of December. It found that almost 90% of all the numbers used by the Tories did not match those of Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking organization.

Ben Guerin, a political adviser to the Tory Party (who helped Scott Morrison in his surprising victory as Australian Prime Minister last year) said: “We speak of anger, excitement, pride, fear. Your content should relate to one of these emotions so that everyone can care. ”At a conference in June, hAbout the conservative strategy, he said: “How do you win the thumb fight?”

The democratization of misinformation

The approach of using our primal feelings with half-truths or lies has spread on social media and reinforced its message and targeted specific target groups through paid advertising, while the big platforms stand by and watch. The lack of action by Facebook and others has resulted in the fire being fueled with political forces charging their half-truths and creating “the democratization of misinformation,” said Jacob Davey, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

By continuing to allow political advertisements to be unchecked by Facebook, Google and others, these organizations allow their platforms to be hijacked for political reasons. Because of this, we saw a deluge of misinformation in this election polluting people’s newsfeeds.

“This is the choice that normalized disinformation,” said Davey. The consequences could be catastrophic for generations to come.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, commented on the news of his platform’s political advertising ban: “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” If only others agree …

Tom Jarvis, founder and CEO of Wilderness.


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