The final week of an election campaign usually sees the party leaders tour the country, doubling down on their core messaging and visiting marginal constituencies.
Modern election campaigns, however, now come with a further dimension in the shape of massive online advertising spend which targets finally tuned messages to audiences broken down by age, geography, political leanings and various preferences, determined by what people have liked and shared with their family in friends online.
While the rules on online advertising, particularly on Facebook, have been tightened up since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw controversy about how users’ data was accessed and then used to target them with controversial messages, there is nothing to govern what you can and cannot say and who you can say it to, out with the rules of common decency, of course.
Facebook has launched an Ad Library which provides a searchable collection of all ads currently running from across Facebook Products, including Instagram. Anyone can search it and it has uncovered an “Alice through the looking glass” impact on British politics where things are not as they should be.
Rachel Sylvester of The Times, recently explored the Ad Library for her column and came across a series of third party campaign groups, with no official links to the parties, who are targeting messages designed to split their opposition’s vote rather than build support for their own side. This has led to a situation where, according to Sylvester, “Brexiteers are urging people in some constituencies to vote for Remain-supporting parties, Remainers in other seats are pushing voters towards the Brexit Party”.
This is done by targeting paid for advertising which is seen only by users who match the advertiser’s criteria meaning it is virtually impossible to police their content in the way that the Electoral Commission would with traditional election communications.
The other major development in social media is for parties to use guerrilla marketing techniques designed to cause a controversy which in turn shapes the discourse by making messages go viral. The objective being to reach millions online who would normally ignore normal political messaging. Think of the Conservatives editing of Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary, explaining Labour’s policy or rebranding the CCHQ twitter feed as an independent fact checking site during the course of the leaders debate.
The theory is that the benefit of getting people to hear the messages that they would normally be tuned out of outweighs the threat of being associated with a digital controversy.
So, what does it all mean? It’s probably too early to say. These techniques have only really been in place over the last five years as technology has developed. While, it is true that there seems is a higher level of engagement and misinformation online it is also true that as time moves on each of will be better able to filter out spam. However, the technology is only really in its infancy and the scale of the issue is not yet clear. It may be that the future is one where politics is regulated off the internet, whether voluntarily or involuntary.
However, one thing to note that underlines the impact of online political advertising – when was the last time you saw a party political broadcast or an election hoarding?