We’ve had a number of elections in the last 18 months where digital has been cited as one of the key tools used by the winning party to win.
In the US, after the electoral upset of 45 being voted in, we saw a clutch of stories about the massive database used to suppress turnout among voters who would have typically have supported for Hilary instead.
In the UK, we’ve seen stories from the people running the leave campaign about how they did the same to send a colossal amount of personalised messages to get the leave vote out.
The problem with digital election campaigning – transparency
With mass communication like billboard ads, TV spots and and leaflets, there’s a chance for public discussion about what we consider acceptable, even if regulation in the UK on political adverts is pretty toothless. And there are sites like election leaflets that track what is being used to ‘sell’ a given party during elections.
But for digital, and one-off ads like the kind that are claimed to have swung recent elections there isn’t anything like this level of transparency,
Because messages are directed at individual voters, the only person who sees them is the voter. This makes it much easier for contradictory messages, or flat out lies to be used, and it’s much harder to challenge what’s being said. Tom Steinberg has written about this at length on civichall.org:
I think Google and Facebook should do this because they are companies that want to connect the world, not divide it. By showing which adverts are being shown to which parts of the electorate they can help expose situations in which parties and candidates are telling one group of people one thing, and another group of people the exact opposite. It may also help expose forms of campaigning based on hate that are actually outside the law, especially in a country like the U.K.
What can be done about digital
If Google and Facebook are billing clients for all these personalised ads, it’s difficult to believe that the data used for the ads being served doesn’t exist, and in the Steinberg post above, Tom explicitly challenges them to share this info:
What I want is this: I want Facebook and Google to show seasonal goodwill by voluntarily publishing data on the political adverts that are purchased on their platform and shown to users in the U.K. in the next six weeks.
To be more specific, I want:
- A copy of each unique advert (e.g image/text/video)
- Data on who this advert was targeted at (e.g everyone/only women/only people in London)
- Data on how many people have been shown each advert
- Information about who the buyer was
But this isn’t the only way this can be more transparent.
One bottom-up plan to make this more visible is the Who Targets Me project from the UK, to help shed some light on the kinds of ads being served via Facebook, and who is being targeted. There’s an election coming in Germany next month, and they’ve started over here too.
We’re very lucky to have these in Germany, and I wonder if in 2017, they would be a good ally in helping make the digital side of elections more transparent as Tom suggests, using approaches like those shown by WhoTargetsMe.
Moreover in Germany, where campaigning is arguably less vicious than other places, and political parties aren’t already massively invested in ‘dark’ campaigns like this (and less likely to fight to keep them), it feels like it may be a good place to establish some conventions or precedents for responsible use of digital campaigning.
Before I realised they were already active in Germany, I was thinking of working on it at the coming Democracy Hackathon in Factory Berlin, and I’m still considering doing so.
If you’d be interested in doing so too, let me know in the comments, or get in touch – I list a number of ways on my personal site.