The Facebook Election – what's really behind digital 'micro-targeting' is our flawed electoral system

We are right to worry about how much companies and campaigns know when they target us with social media ads

Katie Ghose
19 May 2017

Facebook website. Micro-targeting voters isn’t just at the heart of British winner-takes-all politics - it has been happening here for decades. When we see stories in the media of people being targeted on  Facebook and other social media, it is nothing new.

In 2015 just a handful of constituencies determined the result – a 12 seat majority for David Cameron. And with candidates only needing a plurality of the vote, the field of vision narrows. Parties know where their strongholds are and where undecided voters live. They spend most time and effort in the handful of hyper-competitive seats.

In this election, targeting is being taken to a new level of sophistication. Combining highly personal demographic data with social media behaviour, they evaluate voters through a psychological lens. They are honing their communications to new levels.

This isn’t all bad, of course. Digital campaigning can be more effective when it talks to people about their issues – joining their conversations rather than one-way broadcasts.

But a downside is lack of transparency – we have no idea who or how the parties are going after voters. Unlike public billboard or television broadcast, this type of communications is ‘for your eyes only’ – and could enable parties to pedal widely different messages without being held accountable.  

It’s the latest trend of something rife in our politics. The Electoral Reform Society found that campaigns spend 22 times as much money in most competitive constituencies compared to the safest seats. That looks likely to be replicated when it comes to the new digital micro-targeting. The same happens in the US, which also uses the First Past the Post system.

Telling candidates and activists to put their energies into one group of voters and ignore the rest is a disturbing democratic tradition – all the more so given how distant many people feel politics is from their lives.

But there are tried and tested alternatives to the inevitable electoral wastelands our voting system creates. In Scotland, where the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method is used for local elections, all parties acknowledge the benefits of reaching out to all parts of a community. Candidates have an incentive to talk to the voters who might not put them first but are happy to consider them for second or third place.

One councillor told me: “I knock on doors and talk to voters in streets I never would have bothered with under the old system.”

But in England, we have a system that creates no-go areas or electoral deserts. It has caused the decades-long, under-representation of Conservative voters in the North, and Labour voters in the South.

The advent of under-the-radar online targeting more raises troubling questions.

Who is being left out?

What are they saying to one group that they aren’t saying to another?

How much do they know about you?

Where did they get the data from?

Even the Information Commissioner is now looking into how campaigns are using social media targeting.

But unless the root causes of all this are tackled – namely an electoral system which demands a laser-like focus on a floating few, while ignoring millions of others – we won’t get very far.

So yes – let’s review, investigate and debate the shift to social media as the electoral battleground. But then, we have to look at what’s really behind this. 

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