Ominous music plays behind a dire warning with a thinly-veiled message - a vote for another party on Thursday could wreck your life. Welcome to the rapidly-growing world of so-called “dark ads” - targeted political messages on Facebook that are designed to reach key groups of voters on their phone screens, tablets and laptops.
Depending on your political persuasion, you may have been told in the last few weeks that Jeremy Corbyn is a “grave risk to the finances of every UK family”, that the Conservatives “want to take away” the NHS or even that a “right-wing coup is under way”.
In 2015, Â£1.3m was spent by political parties on targeted Facebook advertising, around 23 per cent of their combined budgets. After the Conservatives won a surprise majority, Facebook claimed the Tories had been able reach 80 per cent of the site’s users in the key marginal seats, allowing them to “speak to the right people — over and over again”.
Such targeted advertising was used to even greater effect by the Vote Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum, with the group spending 98 per cent of its Â£6.8m budget on digital advertising, mostly via Facebook.
It all means Facebook has become a key election battleground - but one that is difficult to monitor due to the personalised nature of each user’s newsfeed. In the same way that each person has their own unique Facebook experience, seeing messages, videos and photos from friends and family and bands, sports teams and companies they like, the political adverts targeted at them are unlikely to be seen by other loved ones and acquaintances unless they are of a similar political persuasion.
New research on this election, conducted by Who Targets Me? and the Bureau Local, part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has been shared with the Yorkshire Post to highlight the influence of online campaign advertising, which is largely unmonitored despite the massive reach of Facebook.
The social network allows ad buyers to target selected groups of people, with ads then appearing in the newsfeeds of individual users instead of on public pages. More than 650 people across Yorkshire have volunteered to record the advertisements appearing in their Facebook feeds to offer an insight into how such campaigns are being run online.
Of the 1,105 adverts recorded by the volunteers up until Tuesday morning, the Liberal Democrats had the most with 351, slightly ahead of Labour with 350. The Green Party has also put a lot of effort into persuading voters in Yorkshire to vote for them, with 252 adverts recorded.
Adverts by the Conservatives were seen on 78 occasions, with 31 extra promotions of Theresa May’s personal page. But Tim Farron’s messages reached the highest number of volunteers in Yorkshire, getting to 38 people, while Jeremy Corbyn’s personal videos were only seen by four of them. Not one volunteer saw a single message from Ukip.
The figures largely match the national trend seen by the volunteers’ research, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour dominating more the advertising market, followed by the Greens. While the Conservatives appear to be running fewer adverts, those they are publishing have a simple message - don’t risk putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. The majority of their adverts feature Corbyn in some form - with one of their most successful online videos viewed 6.6m times.
In a post published with the caption “On June 9th, this man could be Prime Minister. We can’t let that happen. Share this video with everyone you know to make sure it never does”, the video starts with a message warning “This man is only six seats away from being Prime Minister” and then shows a series of clips of Corbyn’s speeches from down the years, showing him saying things like “Fight all the cuts, except those in the armed forces where we want to see a few more cuts”. It ends with the message “On 8th June, it is him or Theresa May. Vote Conservative.”
In another advert, viewed more than 400,000 times on Facebook and seen by voters in Leeds Central and Sheffield Hallam, former Labour voters are shown explaining why they are breaking the habit of a lifetime to vote Conservative. One woman says: “Jeremy Corbyn would be disastrous as a leader and I cannot see him around the negotiating table.”
Another Conservative video posted on June 3 and seen by a volunteer in the key Leeds swing seat of Morley and Outwood features Boris Johnson urging former Ukip voters to back the Tories. He says: “If you vote Ukip, I’m afraid that will be doing exactly what Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott want to happen because it will make it more likely they are in charge.”
In contrast, while Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies have been attracting thousands on the campaign trail, Labour’s Facebook advertisements make little to no mention of a leader who divides opinion on the doorstep, preferring instead to focus on accusations that the Conservatives are failing the NHS.
One video, titled ‘The NHS is in crisis’ and viewed 1.3m times, warns “The NHS is there to protect you. The Tories want to take it away. Vote Labour to stop them. Vote Labour to protect hospitals and keep patients safe”.
Labour also makes use of videos featuring ordinary people such as Royal Green Jacket veteran David Bloomfield. In a video seen in Sheffield Central and called “We will protect pensioners”, Mr Bloomfield claims: “I fear for my grandchildren under a Conservative government. She’s Miss Nice Guy now, Theresa May, but she is going to get nasty after the election. If she wins the election, I dread to think, she’s going to be a Thatcher.”
Meanwhile, it is an advert from the Green Party that contains perhaps the most startling claims. It states a “right-wing coup” is under way and adds: “We are facing the most extreme Conservative party in living memory - forget Thatcher, this lot are far worse.”
Such political messaging is becoming commonplace after helping both Brexit and Donald Trump. In one day last August, Trump’s campaign showed ads to Facebook users that linked to 100,000 different web pages, each microtargeted at a specific group of voters, according to the campaign’s digital director Brad Parscale.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post a week before Trump was elected, former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Mo Elleithee said the nature of political campaigning is changing rapidly and is “feeding polarisation”.
“You have data that allows campaigns to target voters more effectively, allows campaigns to use resources more wisely. But how do campaigns use those resources - mobilising core supporters or trying to persuade undecided voters?
“It is easier to motivate someone who supports you than it is to convince somebody, persuade somebody. Mobilising new supporters or persuading undecideds is less important than it was ten or 15 years ago.
“You see campaigns investing more in talking to people who already share their worldview than trying to talk to people in the middle. That is dangerous in a lot of ways, it feeds that polarisation.
“Technology is so sophisticated it is getting eerie. Campaigns used to buy a TV ad, put it on and everybody would see it the same way.
“As time went on, you got a better idea what shows and what demographics your target audience were watching - if you wanted to reach stay-at-home mums you advertised during the soap operas, if you wanted blue-collar men, it would be the sports networks.
“But it is getting so sophisticated now that it could be your next door neighbour living on the same street watching the same programme at the same time will watch a different advert because they now have that ability.
“By the next presidential election this will be pretty standard. If you are interested in education, you get a message about that, if you are a core supporter you will get a ‘get out the vote’ message.”
He said such polarisation is even more pronounced on the internet where algorithms in people’s phones and Facebook feeds mean they are fed more information that supports their worldview and hides away opposing opinions.
“You read these two stories and are shown three more like it. We are creating conditions where there are no independent set of facts. Everything I am seeing on my news feed, on my phone, on TV is reinforcing this world-view so why would I believe something else?”
Findings 'offer a snapshot'
The investigation carried out by the Bureau Local and Who Targets Me into the use of ‘dark ads’ in Yorkshire provides a snapshot into advertising tactics in the election.
Although thousands of people have volunteered to assist the project, there are more than 30 million Facebook users in the UK, so the true number of political adverts is likely to be much than shown by the samples provided and it is not intended that the database offers a comprehensive picture.
Details of how much each political party has spent on online advertising will be revealed by the Electoral Commission following the election.
For more information about the project, visit www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/the-bureau-local.