Social media advertising and politics: have we crossed the rubicon?

When it comes to social media advertising, the array of audience targeting options available these days is truly mind boggling. Even digital marketers’ heads spin at the possibilities. Social media algorithms are becoming more complex and more intelligent. So it’s no surprise that legislation and governments are being left behind in the dust.

The UK is in the midst of a snap election campaign. Few would disagree that overall, election advertising is a horrible business. It’s often superficial, one sided, loaded with sound bites taken out of context. Ads are all designed to confuse you and leave you feeling unsure of your vote, hopefully just unsure enough to change your mind.

Our online worlds are becoming ever more tailored to our individual interests, desires and behaviours. As such, ad targeting is starting to feel creepy. You look at a pair of shoes on Amazon or a holiday destination on and thanks to retargeting ads, those shoes and that hotel follow you around for weeks. Do you still want these shoes? Are you still planning that holiday? Check out this great deal! Look at these shoes again. And again. Don’t they look wonderful? Are you sure you don’t want them? Are you really sure? We’re about to run out! Of course it works and sometimes this type of advertising can be handy for users. But it’s also starting to get annoying, particularly now that everyone is doing it. And that includes political parties.

Are political parties’ social media ads breaking the law?

This week Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, launched an investigation into the way UK political parties target voters through social media. She says that “if political campaigns or third-party companies are able to gather up very precise digital trails to then individually target people, that is an area [where] they are going to be outside the law”.

With both Labour and Conservatives investing around £1m each to target voters through social media, this year’s election is certainly big business. And given how heavily regulated TV and print advertising is when it comes to politics, isn’t it about time social media was brought into line?

As we know, Facebook has a comprehensive data profile of each of us. No doubt it knows what we think of Brexit, it knows where we live, where we work, who we associate with, what we buy. A huge number of us even voluntarily told Facebook how we voted last time, checking in at the polling booth. We’re all being assessed on how readily we may vote for a particular party. And if we’re on the opposing side, how much would it cost to get us to swing the other way? Parties are using social advertising to slip messages into our newsfeeds. These messages are often tailored to us in ways we’re not sure of. Some are dubbing this the ‘invisible election’, as so much of the campaign is now hidden from public view.

Social media advertising and the “invisible election”

Professor Helen Margetts from the Oxford Internet Institute told Sky News that this type of targeted advertising may be overstepping the line.

“It is totally non-transparent… If a party has a billboard or a party political broadcast on television everybody sees it and they know what they’re saying to people and they can assess that accordingly. But on a social media platform it’s a secret world that’s unique to a small group of people and we just don’t know what those advertisements are saying or how they are targeting people or about their accuracy. And I think that’s what’s different and that’s what’s worrying.”

Politics, by its very nature, should be out in the open. It’s about public debates, freedom of expression, standing up for what you believe in. It’s not supposed to be about tailored messaging, data capture and weighing up the cost of conversions. But this is the world we’re living in. Users need to start being more savvy. And governments need to start making political parties more accountable for the ways they target us. And in the meantime, the social media giants will continue to rake in the profits.

Wondering which political ad campaigns are targeting you on social media? Download the Chrome extension Who Targets Me.


Christian Taylor is a writer and digital marketer and a member of the VKN Digital team. VKN Digital is a digital marketing agency in Hertfordshire, UK. We aim to help SMEs overcome marketing hurdles and create compelling digital content that drives results. Need help creating and launching a native advertising campaign? How about assistance with SEO or social media? Please contact us for a free Skype consultation.

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