Locational Micro-targeting is Illegal and Should Be Banned from the 2019 Election

Following the heavy use of targeted advertising in the 2016 campaign victories of Donald Trump and Brexit, Facebook came under great scrutiny. The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr took aim saying ‘democracy dies in darkness and there’s nothing darker in this world right now than Facebook – private walled off unaccountable’. Subsequently the DCMS conducted the modern eras largest investigation into the subject of misinformation and targeted advertising concluding that Facebook had acted as ‘digital gangsters’ and that voters needed to have ‘the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us’. In May 2018 Facebook responded through the creation of the Political Ad Library. This database of political online ads was accessible towards the public, provided insights to advertising metrics, gave information on publishers and finances. Despite these improvements a letter signed by Mozilla, Demos, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Open Data Institute has demanded that Facebook and Google ban all political advertisements during the General Election until the government has implemented legislation to protect the parliamentary elections. 

The co-alition aiming to ban Facebook and Google advertising criticise the government’s ability to regulate and the platform’s complacency in upholding their own standards for transparency. They describe the moratorium as a ‘necessary trade off’. The letter did however fail to mention arguably one of the most compelling arguments against the use of targeted advertisements, that may put micro-targeting tools in violation of existing electoral laws and thus illegal. 

Martin Moore’s marvellous 2015 text Facebook, the Conservatives and the Risk to Fair and Open Elections in the UK explains how targeted advertising helps violate campaign spending law. He explains that there has been limits on constituency spending since the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act in 1883. In a general election a candidate can spend between £10,000 to £16,000 depending on the population size of their constituency (Moore uses the average of £15,000). Central Party spending can be up to £19.5 million if it stood a candidate in 650 constituencies. Moore highlights how during the 2015 election, adverts locationally micro-targeted to support certain candidates within a 10 mile radius were recorded as national rather than local expenditure. The Electoral Commission’s guide to campaign spending in 2019 clearly states that this is a violation of existing laws. On page 8 they write that candidate spending counts as ‘advertising of any kind. For example, posters, newspaper adverts… or YouTube videos’. Therefore, national advertising campaigns that were micro-targeted to certain constituencies should be counted as candidate rather than national expenditure. Instead these micro-targeting tools enable politicians to bypass Electoral Commission rules. 

The latest Conservative advertising campaigns demonstrate a continuing breach of national and local boundaries that strongly suggest Facebook will enable parties to break electoral spending laws as adverts are micro-targeted to constituencies allowing national expenditure to be used to endorse local candidates. The Tory party has spent approximately £21,100 on targeting 29 swing seats delivering adverts that detail the number of votes needed to ‘elect a Conservative MP that will Back Boris to Get Brexit Done’. 

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As demonstrated by the above Facebook advert, the electoral margins are highlighted to encourage voters to uproot Labour MPs. In Workington, the votes needed is 1963, Blackpool South 1,262 and in Newcastle under Lyme just 15. The content of these adverts strongly suggests that they are being locationally micro-targeted towards the described constituencies. In the Workington advert the text only mentions Boris but through locational and micro-targeting directly backs the election of Conservative candidate Mark Jenkinson. Electoral Commission finance laws come into play after Wednesday the 6th of November. Were this ad to be run after the 5th, it should  count towards candidate spending with £850 being detracted from the £15,000 constitutional spending limit, however, according to Moore, it is instead likely that these adverts will be counted as national party spending with Facebook ‘treated like a national billboard and press advertising campaign’. While the latter was written in a pre-Facebook Ad Library age, today we can effectively monitor and flag national advertising campaigns that explicitly support local candidates. In 2015 Moore described that taking into consideration central spending on micro-targeting tools would add £9000 pounds of spending to 23 of the most important marginals and wildly exceed the local candidate limit.  

This demonstrates that locational micro-targeting permits violation of existing financial laws and should be seen as one of the most powerful arguments supporting calls to ban targeted advertising for the 2019 General Election. For the future I would suggest banning national parties from using locational targeting but allow local candidates to continue using these tools. This would therefore give local politicians enhanced messaging capabilities and prevent national parties from undermining Electoral Commission regulation. In the meantime, Facebook locational micro-targeting encourages national campaigns to breach legislative guidelines and aid local candidates without affecting the £15,000 limit.

6th of November 2019