Social media and general elections: exploring the murky world of dark ads

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Published on

May 15, 2017



Time to read: 4 minutes
Dark ads - Hook Research

“My worry is this is going to be the first dark ads election, where the campaigners are able to pay to reach millions of people with less scrutiny than there ever has been before” – Will Moy, Director – Full Fact

In February, Channel 4 commissioned a survey to see how easily people could tell the difference between authentic news and fabricated stories. The results were not particularly encouraging.

Respondents were shown six news articles (three certified news stories and three false) and asked to identify which – if any – were fabricated. Almost half of the group incorrectly believed that one of the three fake news stories was real, and only 4% of those surveyed correctly identified all three creations.

Although ‘Fake News’ may have been Macquarie Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, as the UK readies itself for another General Election issues of truthfulness in the media remain pertinent. While an American President rails against the perceived injustices of ‘Fake News’, and media giants like Wikipedia and Facebook frantically try and filter users’ media diets, an offshoot of Fake News may be soon creeping onto home pages across the UK: political dark ads.

From Obama & Trump to May & Corbyn: Using social media to connect with voters

The wash of demographic data and personal insights available through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts offers an intoxicating amount of potential for brands to identify and engage with finely-targeted consumers all over the world.

Understandably, political parties around the world have tried to use this power to connect with voters.

Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign was one of the first to truly harness the power of social media, leveraging social ads across the various platforms to energise younger voting bases around the country – spending close to $47m on digital advertising in the process (10X that of his Republican opponent). Four years later, researchers estimate that 2 out of every 5 dollars spent by Clinton and Trump on digital campaigns went towards social media ads – which is a significant amount when you consider that Trump spent $8.4 million on digital marketing in July alone.

The political potential of these ads in the upcoming 2017 UK general election is reflected in the massive budgets parties are assigning for their deployment.

In 2015, the Conservative party spent £1.2 million on social campaigns – bulldozing Labour’s comparatively paltry £160,00 budget – while in the upcoming election Corbyn’s team have purportedly put aside close to £1 million for targeted ads.

It seems that creating social media ads to connect with voters is now a vital part of any big-ticket political campaign.

Dark ads - Hook Research

Dark ads and a General Election

Are these ads inherently bad? Not necessarily.

In theory, demographic targeting allows parties to deliver information about relevant policies directly to the voters who they affect the most – for instance, while a London-based Twitter user may care about housing plans in the nation’s capital, a Facebook user in Northern Ireland may care more about post-Brexit border plans.

Yet the inscrutable nature of these dark ads is causing some concern.

“If you run an advert on Facebook and only show it to people in certain areas and tell them one message, then you can run an advert for people in a different part of the country and tell them the exact opposite.” That’s from Will Moy, the director of Full Fact – an independent fact-checking organisation – who discussed the problem of  so-called ‘Dark ads’ in modern political campaigns.

In particular, Moy worries that the highly-targeted nature of these ads is making it difficult for external fact-checkers to verify their veracity: “It’s possible they are running adverts that aren’t true and there is no way of seeing the advert unless you have been targeted. If you aren’t targeted by them you don’t even know they exist so you can’t even fact check them.”

This isn’t a hypothetical problem.

Claims of exaggeration and untruths swirled heavily around last year’s Leave campaign, while Trump’s surprise win in November is seen by many to have been helped by his endorsement of unverified, sensational articles on social media – earning him the nickname among some as the “click bait candidate.”

For Moy, this rise of dark ads presents a more pressing threat than the spread of fake news articles: “I would argue that mainstream political parties disseminating false information to the public via advertising, which is then reproduced by the mainstream news media, is far more damaging than obscure websites publishing conspiracy theories.”

Public debates – a remedy to dark ads and fake news?

In recent weeks both May and Corbyn have announced that they do not plan to participate in any televised debates before the election before the election.

In a political climate become more and more finely targeted – more and more siloed – broadcasted debates offer an important space for candidates policies to be aired and debated in public view. It is this kind of open dialogue that combats the spread of exaggerated, misjudged, or downright malicious tales through tools like ‘Dark Ads’ and ‘Fake News’.

So while both sides of the campaign have been quick to call out ‘Fake News’ that has directly impacted their own campaigns, is their reluctance to step into the limelight and participate in the debates actually fuelling its spread?

At Hook Research we believe in Talking Human and the power of authentic conversation. It seems like some of our values would be well-placed within the current political dialogue that has become defined by obscurity – whether that is through the use of dark ads or refusing to take part in open debate…

Want to learn more about our own experience in the social media space? Check out our exciting new partnership with data science company Signify (and our groundbreaking new Social Intelligence methodology that combines powerful AI with nuanced Qual).


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