General election 2017: This tool shows how political parties are manipulating you on Facebook
The leveraging of Facebook’s advertising revenue model for political purposes has become one of the most controversial aspects of modern electioneering. Siloing users with the purpose of feeding out specifically targeted ads for holidays and gym shorts and is one thing, but doing it with political propaganda is something else entirely – since the social network is having to learn amongst talk about echo chambers and fake news.
Now, ahead of the general election, a number of experts in digital campaigning have banded together to release a free chrome extension that aims to lay bare what they describe to The Guardian as “a dark, unregulated corner of our political campaigns”.
The tool, called Who Targets Me?, aims to enable voters to keep track of which political parties are spending money to target them via inserted posts in Facebook newsfeeds. Once downloaded, the software runs in the background of your device, extracting and analysing each political advert that’s shown to you based on your specific social profile. The hope is that, with enough people using the tool to monitor their own tailored political ads, the makers can throw some light on how UK parties are using targeted Facebook tools.
“In truth, nobody is completely sure of the scale campaigns are using big data and targeted advertising to affect our politics,” the extension’s developers say. “Who Targets Me? is recognising that we, the people, can use technology and big data to monitor the campaigns and defend the transparency of this democracy.”
The developers point out that a combined £1.3m was spent on targeted Facebook advertising by political parties in the run up to the 2015 general election. This phenomenon didn’t really exist during prior UK elections. “The rise of dark ads has been swift, and this trend can be observed globally, perhaps most noticeably in 2016 when the Trump campaign spent tens of millions of dollars funding digital advertising with variable language tweaked to each individual’s particular personality traits.”
In the UK, there’s an incongruity between regulations for campaigning spend on a local level, national levels, and on platforms such as Facebook. Each party is allowed to spend around £15,000 in each constituency, but the spend on national-level campaigning is uncapped, as it is on Facebook. Now, arguably, if specifically tailored Facebook ads are working to target individual newsfeeds, shouldn’t that be factored into local spend? If it was, however, the figure would be blown through in seconds. At the moment, therefore, Facebook sits uneasily in the regulations for election spend – along with buses.
As The Guardian reports, the Conservatives have re-hired Tom Edmonds and Craig Elder, the digital consultants who worked on the 2015 election. During that election, the Conservatives spent £1.2 million on digital campaigning compared to Labour’s £160,000. Those figures are expected to be significantly higher this time around, with Labour’s campaign co-ordinator having told the paper that targeted Facebook advertising will have a “significant impact” on the election.
The project’s founders – Sam Jeffers and Louis Knight-Webb – say they aim to “encourage transparency and restore trust in our political system”. Aside from crude figures about overall spend on Facebook, they want to build a more detailed picture of what groups are being targeted for specific types of adverts.
“If Facebook (and Google) were to publish their data on how campaigns use advertising, it would be incredibly illuminating – a great democratic service on their part,” they note. “However, it’s likely that they can’t and won’t do it.”
As former Facebook executive Antonio Garcia-Martinez says elsewhere in the paper: “The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke.”