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Facebook needs to face up to the new political reality

Facebook should disclose data on how campaigns are using the platform for political advertising. This general election might be an opportunity to bring that ideal closer.

Mark Zuckerberg. Andrew Feinberg/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The big question in any general election is which party will win. Not this time: it’s going to be the Tories. Any other outcome will be be the result of events so unpredictable that they aren’t worth speculating about. What is contested in this election is the political landscape in which the next one will take place, in which one prize that might be up for grabs is getting Facebook to do something about disclosing political ad spending (see wise @steiny on the same cause here).

In the UK parties cannot buy TV advertising, instead TV stations are obliged schedule – at no cost – party political broadcasts. Billboard advertising and the like is at least public – we can see what messages parties are using. Facebook has no such civic niceties. We simply have no idea what party political message is being targeted to whom through Facebook ads, and journalists seem indifferent. Dominic Cummings, who ran the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum says: "there was not a single report anywhere (and very little curiosity) on how the official Vote Leave campaign spent 98% of its marketing budget. There was a lot of coverage of a few tactical posters." Vote Leave spent 98% of its budget on Facebook.

Vote Leave spent 98% of its budget on Facebook.

Social media consultancy Cambridge Analytica has, probably accidentally, done the most to promote discussion of this issue, by claiming it got Trump elected with Facebook ads. If you watch the spine-chilling video, you’ll see their unrepentant cartoon-robo-villian CEO trying explain away their failure in the Cruz campaign, followed by his lauding absolutely mundane psychological survey techniques as though he’s discovered perpetual motion. Whatever Cambridge Analytica’s contribution, it’s clear that ZuckBook could have an impact.

In fact we know that Facebook changes voting behaviour. Their ‘I voted’ button has demonstrably increased turnout. That’s obviously a good thing – but what other effects does Facebook have? What messages are political parties sneaking under the radar? (The full nature of the connection between voter behaviour and social media is extremely unclear, and I hope to post on it in the future… but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.)

Facebook ought to tell us – but it won’t. So we should find out for ourselves. https://whotargets.me/ is a plugin that will automatically collect data from your Facebook about which parties are targeting you – though the surprise election means that it’s currently being developed post-haste. Democracy Club’s https://electionleaflets.org/ is a tool for monitoring the leaflets parties post through your letterbox – and a similar approach might be combined with screen grabs to get some purchase on what parties are up to on Facebook.

What messages are political parties sneaking under the radar?

The effort is bound to fail – it’s going to be almost impossible to get a comprehensive picture of what parties are doing with their ad spend. But it might succeed in the sense that it can raise awareness of the FB advertising blind spot, perhaps by picking out the most egregious cases where parties are targeting particularly inflammatory or dubious messages, or where they are simultaneously running contradictory messages. Everything helps in building the case for transparency – one big story would be a huge victory.

It’s likely to be an uphill battle. Everything Facebook does has to scale so massively that even relatively trivial obligations might be rejected as too onerous. More importantly, every time Facebook makes a civic gesture it demonstrates what an obvious candidate for regulation it is; how powerful its mindshare and data can be, and how reminiscent it is of a public utility. These are not things it wants to loom large in the public consciousness. We should be optimistic though – the argument for disclosing political advertising is practically irrefutable.

About the author

Jimmy Tidey is doing a PhD on using social media in design and designing social media. He's especially interested in civic and public sector applications of his work. @jimmytidey on Twitter, or, if you prefer, @jimmytidey@mastodon.social.

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