General Election 2019: Why Facebook and Google Are Now the Key Political Battleground

Tech Companies

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When Bob Dylan sang ‘the times they are a-changing’, he really had no idea of how technology would revolutionise the way we live our lives – positively, mostly, but with the occasional drawbacks too.

The internet in particular has impacted our lives in so many ways, and often in areas we didn’t think were that relevant.

But the UK general election 2019 will be amongst the first where campaigning is carried out predominantly online. Long gone are the days of door-knockers and ribbon wearers asking ‘can we count on your vote?’. Now, the political parties are able to tap into your psyche by targeting you online based on your web activities.

Don’t worry! They haven’t got access to your hard drive, so you don’t need to go and thrown your computer off the nearest cliff.

What they are able to do, as proven by the infamous Cambridge Analytica case in the US, is build a sort of profile of you based on your browsing and personal tastes – information they can easily glean from social media and the like.

And then they can target you with ads based upon your personality type: be it aggressive tub-thumping Brexit campaigns that really stir the sense, or milder, more pragmatic images relating to NHS spending and the like.

This is such a divisive issue that many campaigners want advertising on social media in general elections to be banned, and a group campaigned – unsuccessfully – to get Facebook and Google to temporarily suspend political advertising until new regulations were approved.

So what are the dangers of being suckered in by ads on your social media pages and Google searches, and should you believe all that you see?

The Great Spending Debate

NHS Button

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With the NHS spiralling even further into the mire and budgets being cut left, right and centre, it’s always a bit annoying when the political parties dedicate hundreds of thousands of pounds to ‘seen today, gone tomorrow’ ads online.

But the truth is that the internet is a far more direct and useful platform for targeting voters these days than the TV.

At the time of writing, the Conservatives had spent more than £80,000 on Facebook ads alone, according to a report from Sky News. That’s more than double the other parties, and highlights their desperation to tap into the younger demographic of voters.

It’s a spend that at least has come with some rewards. The Tories have enjoyed the eight most viewed ads so far on Facebook, with Labour coming in ninth for their ‘best’ and the Liberal Democrats way down in 21st.

The Conservatives have also been very active on Google with their pay-per-click advertising. One audacious campaign focuses around the search term ‘postal vote’, so if you type in ‘how do I register for a postal vote?’, or similar, into the search engine you will be greeted by a paid ad that takes you directly to the Conservatives’ website.

Google Postal Vote Screenshot

Here you can register for a postal vote directly, after entering your name, address and email. This information, now classed as being in the public domain, will allow the Tories to target you directly while still satisfying GDPR regulations. Clever, eh!

It would be fair to say that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have their niches when it comes to their supporters; they know which constituencies they have a chance to win, and which they don’t.

The Conservatives tend to go for a more catch-all approach in their advertising, which is why two of their Facebook ads are laughably different. In one, Boris Johnson has a snazzy suit and tie on, has brushed his hair and tells the viewers – presumably aged 55 and over – about why we need to get Brexit done now, over mournful, slow-tempo piano music.

Then look at the video aiming to win a younger vote: he’s dressed casually, with what I imagine Tories think is techno music playing in the background. His direct, almost aggressive tone, is purpose-built for the younger demographic.

It’s an area which the Lib Dems need significant improvement in. You may have seen the viral social media post this week about how they plan to oust the ghastly Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Bath and North East Somerset constituency. They depicted graphs showing percentages from survey respondents that suggested that they could defeat the Tory candidate if Labour voters switched to the yellow side for a combined, progressive vote.

However, if you read the small print under the graphics, it literally says: ‘Imagine that the result in your constituency was expected to be very close between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidate and none of the other parties were competitive. In this scenario, which party would you vote for?’

Democracy at its best there.

It’s not just the parties themselves that are getting involved. Supporter groups have also taken to social media and Google to wage their own campaigns. There wss a Fair Tax Campaign message that slammed Labour’s plans to increase the percentage paid by top earners.

Was it a random attack? No, the ad was paid for by Boris’ chum Alexander Karcejwski Crowley, a man with a personal stake in not having his fortune taken away from him.

Other ads, supporting or attacking one or more parties, have been paid for by Parent’s Choice, Best for Brexit, Best for Britain and Hope Not Hate, among many others.

Pressure Mounts on Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

It’s undeniable: Facebook had a huge say in determining the outcome of the last US presidential campaign, in which Donald Trump took down Hilary Clinton.

Mark Zuckerberg allowed the Cambridge Analytica group to access private Facebook data of a staggering 87 million people to send targeted ads, which the Federal Trade Commission decided was a huge no-no.

Facebook was fined a record $5 billion for the breach, although the damage to the legitimacy of the political process was far more important than that.

Let’s hope the UK general election does not fall foul of similar.