Ever since Boris Johnson’s election as leader, the Conservative Party has been road-testing Facebook advertising, gathering contact details and trying out a small number of possible election themes: more police, investment in the NHS and delivering Brexit.
Over the weekend, it seemed that even Facebook tired of the party’s mendacity; removing Tory advertisements that featured a BBC headline doctored to exaggerate the party’s school spending commitment.
There’s a simple reason for this growing digital focus. As Wrexham’s Labour MP Ian Lucas, a member of the Commons Culture Select Committee that has investigated the social media site's role in politics, says: "Facebook is the most important platform in election campaigns in the UK."
Facebook facilitates data-driven electioneering: building the audience, segmenting it, testing and creating message creations, targeting and delivering messages, and fundraising. The 2016 Trump campaign raised $250-280m, of which it spent an estimated $70-90m on Facebook advertising. Facebook staff were embedded in both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to assist campaign operatives in their targeting.
As an admirer of David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign director who used Facebook as a key campaign tool in 2008 and 2012, Dominic Cummings has made no secret of the importance of Facebook to the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. Writing on his blog, Cummings has explained in detail how Vote Leave spent a substantial amount of money on Facebook advertising in the final few days of the referendum campaign, hammering home "the same messages: £350m / NHS / Turkey".
Facebook offers Boris Johnson another advantage: the ability to speak directly, unmediated by probing journalists’ questions, to his audience – and that message can be targeted, directly, by demographics. Through their actions Johnson and Cummings have essentially decreed that the day of the formal media interview is dead, as Dorothy Byrne, the head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, recently noted in her stunning MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
The all-party Commons Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier this year called for urgent action to reform electoral law to close the gaps on social media advertising, saying that it was not fit for purpose.
Candidates and parties currently have to account for social media spending, but the content is largely unregulated except by social media platforms’ own rules. Even imprints are not required on such advertising, meaning there is no transparency for voters. Adverts in Facebook’s news feed have the same appearance as other Facebook posts.
The Select Committee explicitly said the government "should look at the ways in which the UK law should define digital campaigning, including having agreed definitions of what constitutes online political advertising, such as agreed types of words that continually arise in adverts that are not sponsored by a specific political party". It also drew attention to "the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups".
Cummings resisted giving evidence to the Select Committee and was in March found to be in contempt of parliament. In July and September, Ian Lucas wrote to Boris Johnson about Cummings’s role in the Vote Leave campaign on these issues, including seeking funds for associated campaigns such as BeLeave to develop social media advertising with the Canadian company AggregateIQ, which used to boast a message of endorsement from Cummings on its website. Lucas asked Johnson to instruct Cummings to give evidence to the committee.
Johnson this week replied saying that there was a difference between actions taken as a private citizen and those while working as a special adviser, and drew attention to the government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, which promises some future reform in these areas.
There have been some developments in the role of social media in elections since 2016. Under pressure, Facebook is now compelling political advertisers to have their advertisements pre-authorised, so that identity and location can be confirmed, making advertising more transparent by publishing who has paid for it, and ensuring that ads being run from Facebook pages are visible to all through an archive. Legislation on these issues has already been introduced in Canada and Australia. Separately, the UK’s information commissioner has taken action on the use of personal data in campaigning by political parties. Campaigns like Who Targets Me have shone a light on existing political advertising on Facebook under current laws.
Cummings has himself said that UK electoral law is not fit for the digital age. Yet if an election is called in the immediate future we will go to the polls with Facebook and other social media advertising unregulated. It may be a forlorn hope, but for a fair election, legislation on social media advertising in elections should be introduced beforehand. After all, even Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Facebook’s role in political advertising should be regulated.
Leighton Andrews is a former Welsh government minister and the author of Facebook, the Media and Democracy, published next week by Routledge and professor of practice in public service leadership and innovation at Cardiff Business School.