Online political advertising is a black box and democracy should be worried

Guardian Web |

As your mind wearily contemplates being exposed to yet another political campaign, are your dreams haunted by battle buses, billboards and TV debates? Or is it Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google?

On the evidence of last year’s EU referendum, much of the campaigning, and much of the money spent on political advertising, will be online. And it will happen in a way that will be largely hidden from scrutiny by either the public or regulators.

During the referendum, Vote Leave spent £2.7m with one small Canadian digital marketing firm that specialises in political campaigns – Aggregate IQ. The sum was well over a third of Vote Leave’s total budget.

Two other campaign groups – both of which received large donations from the Leave campaign - gave Aggregate IQ a further £765,000, taking the total pumped through the company to almost £3.5m. Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings is quoted on the company’s website saying “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Yet the invoices for the money they paid to Aggregate IQ, which were handed to the Electoral Commission, list vague jargon-filled specifications with little indication of how the ads were delivered. It may tell us Aggregate IQ were running a “targeted video app installed and display media campaign” but gives no clue about where those ads appeared or who saw them. Did most of the money go on Facebook or YouTube? Did they spend more money on reaching under 45s in Hull or pensioners in Canterbury? There’s no way of knowing, not least because the Electoral Commission doesn’t ask for the information.



Meanwhile Cambridge Analytica, the digital targeting experts part-owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, were credited with super-charging the Leave.EU campaign, even getting a mention in a book about campaign by its chief funder Arron Banks. Yet according to filings with the Electoral Commission there was no paid relationship with the firm at all. The Electoral Commission is currently investigating, as is the Information Commissioner’s Office over the company’s use of data.

These two companies promise to sway the electorate using high-tech targeting of voters, yet not only does the Electoral Commission have little idea of how the money is being spent, but many of the different messages those campaigns show chosen sets of targets are hidden from the rest of us.

An ad in a newspaper or magazine, a billboard or tube poster, can be seen by anybody who happens to come across it. They are targeted in a blunt way, by location, readership etc, but who they are appealing to, the messages used and the money spent is clear for all to see.

But online, ads are directed at far more specific target groups, and shown only to them. Suspect someone is a bit racist? Show them pictures of dark skinned migrants lining up at a border. Know someone regularly visits Spain? Emphasise how much longer it will take to go through airport security.

Just as importantly, you can make sure that you don’t show the wrong ads to the wrong people. The racist dog whistle doesn’t get pushed at people likely to be from, or comfortable with, ethnic minorities. The lengthy customs checks don’t get shown to those with an all-consuming fear of terror attacks.

Of course, people will see ads that aren’t aimed at them online – the targeting is far from perfect - but the digital world allows paid-for political campaigning to split into numerous conversations that rarely overlap.

This combination of digital marketing firms that are required to reveal little about what they do, and digital ads that are different for each segment of the population, make political advertising online opaque in way traditional ads were not.

And the approach seems to work. A more sophisticated digital strategy is regularly cited by Cummings and other Leave campaigners as as example of how they outsmarted Remain. If you were planning how to win June’s election, you’d be mad not to pay close attention to how they did it, and do your best to replicate it. And that means as we approach yet another nationwide vote, it will be harder than ever to see what impact money and the political advertising it pays for is having on the result.

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