An update on election Hackday and the goals of

Earlier in August, I went to a hack day with a few friends to work on WhoTargetsMe, a project started by some people in London. We ended up working on the project because we felt that platforms like Facebook had emerged, that were were powerful in the same way that you might consider TV and the press to be powerful when it came to influencing elections.

Thing is, there’s not much in the way of oversight for platforms like Facebook, especially during elections, so it’s very hard to see if the platform is being used in a malicious way.

The appeal for WhoTargetsMe, for me at least was that it was a clever approach to build a dataset to allow for some kind of scrutiny over how Facebook was being used in elections, and it seemed a good way to work towards the things Tom Steinberg outlined:

What I want is this: I want Facebook and Google to show 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

Earlier this week, in a briefing with Techcrunch, Facebook announced something that felt like progress towards this goal:

Facebook briefed TechCrunch on the changes that include hiring 1,000 more people to its global ads review team over the next year, and making it so anyone can see any ad run by any organization on Facebook instead of only the ads targeted to them.

So, one of the key ideas about making adverts less ‘dark’ looks to like it might actually be delivered.

Also, largely as a result of more and more Russian interference in the election, Facebook agreed to share a set of ads with US Congress, and some information about it’s use. This snippet from their own blog is enlightening, but the underlying data doesn’t seem to have been shared beyond the congress investigation :

Most of the ads appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights. A number of them appear to encourage people to follow Pages on these issues.

Here are a few other facts about the ads:

  • An estimated 10 million people in the US saw the ads. We were able to approximate the number of unique people (“reach”) who saw at least one of these ads, with our best modeling

  • 44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.

  • Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone. That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach  people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result.

  • For 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent; for 99% of the ads, less than $1,000 was spent.

It’s a shame that it takes a train-wreck of an election for this to come out, and I hope it means that for this kind of information to be shared, it doesn’t take the same kind of disastrous election we saw in November 2016. But at least it sets a precedent making it easier to campaign for this information to be shared more regularly, as part of a step to make the use of platforms like Facebook in elections more transparent.

Notes as I learn more about the German political scene

Last week, I wrote a post about the BPB and WhoTargetsme, and since writing that, I’ve been lucky to enough to have a few very nice volunteers help make up a team of illustrators, data scientists and talented technical types) with me to go to this German Election themed hackday this Friday. In this post I’m sharing a few things that I’ve either learned, or felt are worth sharing to other interested folk.

How campaigning finance works differently in Germany

In Germany, there’s more state funding of political parties in the UK, and in some areas it feel more tightly regulated, but in some areas it if feels like the wild west. There’s a finite amount of airtime for election based advertising on TV, which is subsequently split among all the parties in a pre-determined manner, so you can’t just carpet bomb a TV channel with attack ads like in the US, and campaigning is barred up to a few days before the election.

However I couldn’t really find any meaningful regulation on the use of digital in Germany in this area.

In the UK, there’s a limit on what you can spend on digital on local campaigns, but there’s a loophole present in that national campaigns can target geographic areas with digital platforms like Facebook, so it’s possible outspend rival campaigns in a particular region quite easily.

Two main things stopping this happening in Germany at present seem to be:

a) Fewer people relying on Facebook for news – it’s associated with hate speech more, and Germany has the lowest percentage of people using it as their main source of news in Western Europe.

b) Inertia – Parties traditionally haven’t used Facebook before for targeted campaigning to the same extent that we have seen in the the UK and the US.

c) The more cordial tone of campaigning – campaigning is generally less adversarial in German politics. For example it’s fairly common to see German politicians from different parties agreeing with each other on issues in a way you wouldn’t see in the UK and the US.

How I think coalitions and PR affect politics over here

The last part above likely down to the system of governance over here, and wearrants some more explanation:

In the UK, we have a first part the post system in our elections – that is, if a MP wins in a given area, it’s as if they won all the votes in that area. This means it’s possible to have ‘landslide’ like swings in power in parliament, even when a comparatively small percentage of the population has changed how they vote. It also tends to favour two parties over a plurality, and this video from CGP grey explains for more entertainingly, than I ever could:


There’s another effect, but this doesn’t have the helpful animated explanation – because parties know that even if they win, they’re likely to be in coalition, it changes what tends to make into their manifestos.

Intra and interparty compromise

When forming a manifesto, there’s going to be some intra-party compromise where, various positions are argued over, and depending on whether they think they’ll be vote winners, are thrown out. A good example of this would be Jeremy Corbyn’s aversion to nukes – he’s been agains them for decades, and yet because it’s seen as a vote loser, the party voted to have funding Trident in the Labour manifesto in 2017.

Under a first past the post system, though – there is an assumption that if a party wins a majority in election, it’ll have so much power that it can ram through policy changes, without relying on the support of other parties, and won’t need to get bogged down in the horse trading we associated with coalition politics.

In coalition politics, because you have power being shared among a wider number of parties, often with radically different worldviews, to get any change, a number of inter-party need to be made, and it’s more likely that some policies will end up being jettisoned, in order to get the other parties onboard, to effect any kind of policy change.

This has the effect of allowing manifestos to be somewhat more radical, under the assumption that voters know that some of the more radical policies will by necessity be sacrificed to achieve some of the other goals the populace was voting for.

Put another way, if you know you aren’t going to ever be able to deliver all the policies in your manifesto, you are able to use more eye-catching policies as a way to differentiate your party from others. This isn’t something we’re used to in the UK, and we tend to take a very dim view of it. You only need to see how Liberal Democrats suffered under Nick Clegg effectively gave up a pledge on free higher education in 2008 in exchange to guaranteed look at electoral reform when going into coalition with the conservatives in the UK in 2008.

As someone growing up with UK politics, it’s not clear to me how voters work out what policies in a manifesto are likely to be sacrificed once the party is in power – my guess is that it’s based on some intuitive sense of how bonkers a part of a manifesto is, but I’d be grateful for a response in the comments.

By the way, if you’re interested in political use of technology in Germany, I’d recommend reading  @ToryDyke’s recent round up of the Berlin Digital/Politics scene.

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What if BPB ran service like for Germany?

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

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.

In Germany, institutions like the BPB, and their Wahl-o-mat exist to help inform the electorate about their choices.

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.