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Facebook audiences used for parties’ election campaigns, report finds

Image credit: Facebook

A campaigning group has revealed practices of how major UK parties test their political messaging on Facebook audiences.

According to analysis by the UK campaign group Who Targets Me?, the three major political parties in the UK (Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats) are all running tests on Facebook to optimise their political messaging in the run-up to the 2019 UK general election.

Who Targets Me? offers users a browser extension that allows people to learn about who targets them with digital political advertising. It was formed to collect data on how political campaigns used ‘dark advertising’ during the 2017 UK general election campaign and it warned against the use of dark advertising on Facebook.

Researcher Tristan Hotham told journalists that political parties have, until now, lagged behind marketing agencies in their use of A/B testing, describing the comparison of two or more versions of an ad to determine which one performs better.

The practice can have negative consequences: “This allows you to find the most effective negative message about a politician and then send it explicitly to whomever it will reverberate with the most,” the expert warned. 

Parties were found to be testing various messages, images and also colours. 

Who Targets Me? accused parties of treating Facebook users as “lab rats in a giant experiment” because the findings are expected to be relevant in parties’ campaign messaging.

“This election will be fought online. Millions will be spent by all parties on ‘untransparent’, highly targeted Facebook ads,” said Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me? “Most of us know nothing about who is targeting us and how, or what impact this will have on politics and society. We urgently need more transparency.”

The analysis by the Who Targets Me? also found evidence that the Labour party is actively tinkering with its online campaigning formula and is refining its campaign according to the feedback it receives online, the organisation said.

The Tory party has used a number of messages claiming that politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn are “not respecting the result of the Brexit vote” and was found to have trialled a number of ads showing Corbyn stuffing Remain votes into a ballot box while discarded Leave votes lie all around.

The analysis also found that Labour’s ads are more interested in the voter who represents the ‘Workington man’. 

The Conservatives have been investing the most, figures show. This August alone, it spent £28,000, compared with Labour’s £19,000. Furthermore, the party spent £67,000 last month and £48,000 in November so far. And from 27 October to 2 November, the Liberal Democrats spent £25,502 on Facebook ads.

“What we’re seeing is probably the tip of the iceberg. Parties will get better at using these tools, so we need regulation now to make sure it’s done fairly and openly on all sides,” Jeffers added.  

Labour was found to have sent out a “Let the people decide” message and has advocated a second referendum, running several versions of ads attacking tuition fees and Universal Credit.

Last month, Twitter announced plans to ban all political advertising from its service, saying social media companies give advertisers an unfair advantage in proliferating highly targeted, misleading messages.

Last week, E&T found that online users of English public council websites were found being heavily tracked by marketing and advertising companies. Many councils appear to be breaching EU and UK privacy laws. 

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