Following the successful 2016 political campaigns of Vote.Leave and Donald Trump a lot of attention was paid towards the pivotal role of social media advertising in political campaigns. Both employed the use of Aggregate IQ and Cambridge Analytica. Vote.Leave spent 98% of their campaign budget on advertising ‘about a billion targeted adverts’. In these elections there was no way the public could know who or how they were being targeted online.
An investigation by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport argued that social media platforms needed the ‘ensure we know the source of what we are reading who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us’. In an attempt to improve Transparency Facebook created the Political Ad Library, Google the Transparency Report and SnapChat provided CSV’s for researchers and voters. Most of these were created in 2018 and therefore this year’s 2019 General Election was the first time British citizens, journalists and researchers could actively monitor the way politicians target social media users. In the absence of a political watchdog, as proposed by the DCMS, it has been the job of independent watchdogs and researchers to keep an eye on how politicians invested millions in targeted advertising in an attempt to seduce voters.
From a targeted advertising perspective two key themes emerged from the 2019 General Election. Firstly, targeted advertising was dominated by Brexit content as different parties competed to persuade voters their vision of European membership. Secondly, political parties experimented with different techniques to effect and impact voters. Topics like the environment and technology were ignored in the online battlefield with Labour being the only major party to consistently run environment focused adverts.
Single Issue Election
All three major parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) led targeted advertising campaigns with Brexit slogans. For the Conservatives, offering to leave with Boris’s deal, it was ‘get Brexit done’, for Labour, who backed a second referendum, it was ‘The Final Say’, and for the Lib Dems, who wanted to repeal article 50, it was ‘Stop Brexit’. From the 12th of November to the 12th of December, at least 34% of Liberal Democrat adverts asserted ‘Stop Brexit’, 13.1% of Labour posed the ‘final say’, and 35% of Tory adverts demanded to ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The work of non-party Remain pressure groups reinforce Brexit as the single issue of the 2019 General Election. Non-party Leave Groups spent just 1.5% of the amount invested by non-party Remain Groups such as Best for Britain and the People’s Vote. By the 7th of December the amount spent by pro second referendum and remain groups and parties was £1,340,582 more than Leave groups and parties like the Conservatives and Brexit Party. Put in these terms, the Johnson leave victory is a triumph given they were dramatically outspent by remain groups and parties.
Remarkably, in the absence of a formal alliance between Labour and pro-remain political parties non-party groups like Best for Britain and Avaaz used targeted advertising to promote tactical voting tools. Despite adversarial words between Corbyn and Swinson, these targeted advertisements demonstrated how locational micro-targeting could be used to reshape and reimagine the expectation of voters in key constituencies. For instance, in Putney the Best for Britain tactical voting system suggested voting for Labour helping win the seat from the Conservatives.
Throughout the campaign Labour were by far the biggest spenders on both Facebook and SnapChat. On Facebook central party spending reached £1,068,303 on the 9th of December. By comparison, the Liberal Democrats invested £715,797 and the Conservatives £561,547. SnapChat was a realm completely dominated by Labour who spent £80,368, to £14,523 spent by the Lib Dems, and just £3,267 by the Conservatives. The platform is used specifically by younger voters who tend to vote Labour, with 62% of 18-24 year olds voting Corbyn in 2017. The success of some of the adverts was astronomical. One advert titled ‘vote Labour Thursday 12th December’ was viewed 14,296,249 costing £45,375. Another costing just £9999 asserting ‘It’s Time for Real Change’ gained 10,259,185 impressions.
The Conservatives experimented with expensive banner videos. The Tories were late to spend big on social media. It was not until the 5th of December that they outspent the Brexit Party. Over the final weekend of the Election campaign over £200,000 was thought to have been spent on a banner video positioned on the YouTube homepage. This campaign stunt felt like the digital equivalent of when Extinction Rebellion took the bridges in London to protest climate change – love or hate them they could not be ignored.
The Conservatives also made particularly effective use of Johnson’s capacity for humour. It is often remarked that Johnson is the UK’s only feel good politician. The Tories managed to go viral twice with two party broadcasts. The first saw Johnson explain his policies in a style reminiscent of David Brent. The second had Johnson imitate a scene from Love Actually explaining his party policies. In both cases Johnson’s performance was amusing enough to be satirised, and therefore publicised, by millions online. In the case of the Love Actually scene, it served to distract users from the previous days story in which Johnson had stolen a journalists phone when shown a picture of a pneumonia victim who was made to sleep on the floor in an NHS hospital. This nack for holding the attention economies gaze is an asset that can only be accomplished through a celebrity status that few politicians command and is a stark contrast to the dry approach of both Corbyn and Swinson.
The millions spent on online targeted advertising demonstrate that it is one of the key battlefields to influence the voting public. In this case, Brexit was deemed the most important issue for voters, with ‘Stop Brexit’, ‘Final Say’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ being seen with every scroll and refresh. The ability of non-party groups to effectively mount large targeted advertising campaigns demonstrates a new realm of influence for pressure groups and activists. In this case, the voice of non-party remain groups was hugely amplified by Facebook advertising. The techniques used by political parties demonstrate an evolution and mastering of online political campaigning. For Labour, the most notable techniques were the serious use of Facebook advertising and the extraordinary viewing figures gained through SnapChat. The Conservatives impressed with a high investment banner video strategy and humorous attempts to make Johnson go viral on Facebook and Twitter. From the perspective of researchers and journalists it is clear that the provision of platform transparency measures has made monitoring adverts far more effective yet more needs to be done to improve their maintenance.