Facebook’s Influence On UK Politics

Figures released mid-March by the UK Electoral Commission are the simplest way to demonstrate the growing influence of Facebook on British politics. Political parties nationally spent about £1.3m on Facebook during the 2015 general election campaign; two years later the figure soared to £3.2m.

In each election it was the Conservatives that spent the most, with decidedly mixed results.  For David Cameron’s successful re-election in 2015, the party spent £1.2m; that rose to £2.1m in 2017, but it was far less help to Theresa May.

Sam Jeffers, the co-founder of Who Targets Me, a body that tries to monitor political Facebook advertising, says the difference stems from the fact that the Conservatives had a better overall strategy in 2015. 

“In 2015 they targeted Lib Dem seats in the south-west; in 2017 they targeted Labour seats in London boroughs, spending money on seats they thought they would win but didn’t,” he says.

Nevertheless, the Conservative success was so striking in 2015 that every other political party and campaign group felt it had to follow suit.

The idea of marketing on Facebook was brought to the UK by the US political consultant Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012, who Tory officials like to say boasted he had “1,000 pieces of data on every voter in the UK”.

It was a big change on the traditional model of supplementing canvass returns with broad demographic data supplied by Experian’s Mosaic, which divides people into groups such as “metro high flyers”, “classic grandparents” and “disconnected youth”, the kind of data used by all the main parties to help deliver targeted mailshots.

The idea rapidly took hold, and was arguably tailor-made for the EU referendum in 2016. One of the reasons why the Conservatives made heavy use of Facebook marketing was because its canvassing operation is far weaker than Labour’s, forcing it to try to identify potential voters using technology.

The temporary campaigns on both sides of the EU referendum debate had no voting history or canvass data they could rely on, making media and marketing messages even more crucial. Vote Leave, the Boris Johnson-fronted campaign, spent 40% of its total budget, or £2.7m, on the services of AggregateIQ, a little-known digital marketing firm based in British Columbia, Canada.

Recently, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica affair, Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave, downplayed the role of digital marketing in a lengthy blogpost: 

“It is hard to change people’s minds. We are evolved creatures. If we were all dopey dupes we wouldn’t be here, our ancestors would have all been killed.”

Cummings blamed Arron Banks from the Leave.EU campaign, whose operation had a brief association with Cambridge Analytica at the end of 2015. Banks has said that Cambridge Analytica did no work for his group, partly because its offer was contingent on Leave.EU winning the designation to be the official leave campaign and so gaining official access to the UK electoral database, which did not happen.

But at the time, Cummings said Banks spread “bullshit about building a ‘digital army’” among “a powerful network of MPs, donors, peers and assorted ‘campaigners’”, who in turn argued Banks should be allowed to control the digital aspects of Vote Leave’s campaign.

Labour, too, wanted to revamp its own campaigning. The party was badly bruised by the 2015 loss, and with Jeremy Corbyn it had a 2017 candidate that supporters were eager to back online. The party revamped its Contact Creator software to allow it to target named voters identified by its canvassing via Facebook, and encouraged constituency candidates to do so locally as well.

The Labour party spent £577,000 nationally on Facebook for the 2017 election, according to Electoral Commission figures, while its candidates in seats spent up to £1,000 each. 

But the party’s agents say that although they would definitely spend on Facebook in the future, they could not be sure how effective their Facebook efforts were. “Some young people brought it up on the doorstep,” one experienced agent says. “But all the data we could see is how many people clicked on our ads.”

The spending continues unabated. The Conservative party in the London borough of Wandsworth has released a short video aimed at residents in the run-up to May’s local elections, arguing that Wandsworth council, run by the party, “has the lowest average council tax in the country”. 

A video encouraging people to join the leftwing organisation Momentum begins by singling out the Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith, saying he is “terrified of our, unseat campaign,” because he only has a majority of 2,500. Tom Baldwin, a former communications director of the Labour party under Ed Miliband, who is writing a book on media and politics called Ctrl Alt Del, summarises the role of digital marketing in the last two elections as follows: 

“In 2015, Labour lost for all sorts of reasons: voter perceptions of Ed Miliband, views on economic competence, Scotland. But also the Tories understood it was possible to reach people very effectively at very low cost through Facebook. By 2017, Labour had caught up. 

“They spent big on Facebook themselves while having a candidate and a campaign that people were willing to share content from across social media like never before in a UK election. It wasn’t the only reason why Theresa May did so badly, she was a bad candidate, running a bad campaign, but it made a difference.” 

Guardian

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