Political Facebook ads tailored specifically to users’ locations, gender and views on Brexit have been found in key marginal seats across the UK, suggesting parties are ramping up the use of “dark ads” as the campaign enters its final days.
Until now the parties have stuck to general messaging and attacks on opposition leaders when campaigning on social media, according to data on political Facebook ads accessed by the Bureau Local. But in the last five days, social media users have seen adverts containing messages targeted at a specific demographic - such as how taxes or jobs could be affected in their constituency or how women are being affected by pension changes.
A project called Who Targets Me has recruited more than 10,000 social users to share information about what political ads they are seeing in their Facebook newsfeeds. Facebook is a major advertising platform for political parties, but such advertising is not open to public scrutiny as the ads often appear solely in the private newsfeeds of the target audience.
Facebook is the “Wild West” of political advertising, said Carl Miller, research director at Demos, a think tank which analyses social media. “It is astonishing how little regulation there is around digital campaigning,” he told the Bureau. “You would have hoped the electoral regulations would have had it under control by now. There should be more rules on spending online, more work being done looking at what messages are going out, and regulation of third party electioneering.”
“We have no idea what is going on, it's the Wild West out there. It seems like a really important playing field to know about, and right now it is not a level one, nor a fair one.”
Tories highlight taxes and nuclear jobs
The Bureau has looked at 7,900 instances when ads from the three major political parties and their leaders, appeared in our sample group’s Facebook feed. The analysis reveals all three parties posting “dark ads” with campaign messages tailored clearly to different groups.
Conservative party ads tailored with specific details at constituency level have been found in the newsfeeds of Facebook users in various marginal seats, but do not appear anywhere on the party’s central page.
In the key Conservative target of Ealing Central and Acton, a 65-year-old man saw an ad saying: "Jeremy Corbyn and Rupa Huq [the local Labour candidate] will hit almost 70% of family homes in Ealing Central & Acton with their punishing inheritance tax hike."
The same ad was tweaked for another six key seats, including Westminster North, where an ad was spotted saying: "Jeremy Corbyn and Karen Buck will hit more than 80% of family homes in Westminster North with their punishing inheritance tax hike."
Elsewhere, Conservative party ads about nuclear jobs have been spotted in three constituencies with nuclear industries.
In Derby North, a 26-year-old man saw an ad saying “Corbyn would put nuclear jobs at risk”. The issue of nuclear power and Trident has been a point of contention in Derby, where Rolls Royce, which makes the reactors that power the vessels, is situated.
The same ad was seen in City of Chester constituency, where Urenco Limited, a service company to the nuclear industry, employs hundreds of workers.
Tactical voting push
Ads from the Liberal Democrats have been seen in their key target seats, prompting Labour supporters to vote tactically. An animated video is captioned saying: "With less than a week until the election, remember that Labour can't defeat the Conservatives in your constituency. But you can still stop them. How? By lending your vote to the Liberal Democrats, the only party in your constituency that can beat the Tories."
Those ads were spotted across 23 constituencies including Kingston & Surbiton and Twickenham - seats held by the Conservatives where the Liberal Democrats came a close second in 2015. They were also spotted in Sheffield Central and Sheffield Hallam, where Nick Clegg is standing.
The party has also been posting ads in Welsh from their main Facebook page, in one case mentioning the name of the constituency in the ad itself.
Ceredigion voted Remain in the EU Referendum. There Facebook users have seen an ad saying: “In Ceredigion, there’s only one way to stop Plaid breaking up Britain. On Thursday vote Liberal Democrat.”
Labour targets women
The Labour party has been posting ads about pensions targeted to women, including one ad that says: "2.6 million women have been hit by Tory unfair pension changes. A vote for Labour is a vote for a fair deal for pensioners."
These ads have been seen solely by women aged between 42 and 70 years old in the Who Targets Me sample group, suggesting the posts are being targeted specifically at this demographic.
A 64-year-old woman in Ealing North saw a Labour ad suggesting she vote for the party, with a video of a woman saying “I should have retired when I’m 60.”
Beyond the three major parties, Sinn Fein Ireland has put out ads targeted at a constituency level. One, which says “Vote John Finucane your North Belfast MP”, was spotted in Belfast, and another which pushes people to “Vote Elisha McCallion your Foyle MP” popped up in Foyle.
Most of these ads are “invisible to many”, said Miller, meaning we can't hold political parties to account in the same way we can for other ads. “That is where the Bureau and Who Targets Me’s project is really important, to uncover the reality in these invisible campaigns,” he said.