Paying for your attention: Who's putting political ads in your news feed?
Social media companies are cracking down on election advertising, with stringent new requirements for political parties and proxy organizations pushing their messages to voters, but some rule-breakers and questionable ads are still getting through.
An analysis of Facebook ads targeting British Columbia residents found $182,842 spent on election-related advertising from Sept. 23 to 29, a sharp increase as political parties and other groups ramp up spending closer to election day (Oct. 21). While Facebook provides a national account of which parties and groups spent money in Canada, they won’t break down spending by province.
"Political parties are going to use any of the new tools that they have to reach voters,” said UBC history and communications professor Heidi Tworek, speaking of their ability to target specific demographics on social media. “It enables [them] to reach different types of voters with different types of messages to differentiate policies in ways where you can reach people who are actually interested in certain policies, so we can see a positive aspect."
In the spring, the federal government passed Bill C-76, The Elections Modernization Act, which included mandated changes to political advertising in Canada. As a result, Twitter and Facebook implemented frameworks for clear labelling of ads related to the election or social issues, with searchable databases and disclosure of how much was spent to promote the ads.
For example, a video ad from the Conservative Party targeting B.C. voters suggests the Liberal Party is partially responsible for high gas prices in this province. Facebook’s new searchable ad library reveals the CPC paid hundreds of dollars for less than 15,000 views, predominantly by male users.
Similarly, an ad from Justin Trudeau paid for by the Liberal Party of Canada is still running, primarily in Ontario and British Columbia. The flattering portrait with the slogan “Support real progress” has been viewed mostly by women over the age of 45.
Facebook, which is used by seven in 10 Canadians, also requires approved advertisers to provide government-issued ID proving they’re Canadian.
"It does go over and above what the basic requirements are under the law," said Facebook head of public policy Kevin Chan, referring to their new public disclosure system. "You cannot run an ad if you don't declare it, if you don't go through an authorization process where we can confirm you're Canadian.”
When asked just how targeted advertisers can be in the voters they’re looking to reach, and whether voters in swing ridings could be targeted by postal code, Chan would only speak in general terms.
"If somebody has expressed a strong interest in the environment or athletics or social issues by liking certain pages on Facebook, that would be a way they could be in a particular (category),” he said.
Getting through the filter
CTV News Vancouver found several ads that Facebook had labeled as “removed” as they had been “run without a disclaimer.” Most were only up for a day or two before they were flagged and removed from news feeds. In one example, an ad was labeled as paying in U.S. dollars and was removed on the grounds it was funded by foreign money.
Similarly, an ad from a current events webcast discussing election issues for Christian voters was removed because it ran without a disclaimer and was determined to be political.
It’s important to note, CTV News found dozens of ads removed for violating the rules that weren’t inherently political, but touted eco-friendly products (or simply selling honey, in one case) and other key-words that had them caught in the election advertising filter.
Proxy groups hard to identify
It’s not just political parties that have to identify themselves when advertising during the election period. Groups advertising about “social issues” like climate change must also abide by the same disclosure rules.
For example, an ad by Unifor Canada with a video telling voters not to regret opting for “Conservative Cola”, ran from Sept. 6 to 8, in which time it reached a few thousand people, mostly men under the age of 35 in Ontario and British Columbia; the union organization paid less than $100 for the outreach.
But some groups working to further the reach of certain parties and policies can be harder to identify. While pro-pipeline groups or companies are clearly supporting the Conservatives and their platform, “Canada Proud” is harder to determine. Many of their posts are blatantly anti-Trudeau, even if they don't advocate for a specific party. Still, the groups are clearly partisan and are thus governed by the same rules. Similarly, North 99 pumps Liberal policies and positions, but there are dozens of groups spending thousands of dollars in ever-changing ads.
Are these measures enough?
While observers are applauding the social media companies for their new move towards transparency and disclosure, critics say much more could be done. For example, Google is refusing outright political ads by parties but there are suggestions they’re carrying advertising that could still influence voters.
Facebook is also under fire for announcing that politicians will not be held to the same standards of truthfulness and screened for fake claims like advertisers, social groups or other high-profile individuals. That’s a contentious position, considering a Conservative candidate in Burnaby posted a quote purportedly from comedian Rick Mercer, calling on people to “vote Conservative.” Mercer called out the post as “all fake” and the candidate took it down.
"When we walk about public figures out there making commitments, we do want to make sure they have that space and that freedom to be able to say and campaign in the way that they want to and we see our role as a platform as just providing that ability for different people and candidates for parties to be able to engage during an election period," said Chan, pointing out the media and observers are free to call out errors and lies.
Tworek says the politician free speech exemption and the time-consuming task of digging through Facebook’s ad library to see the legitimacy and impact of a posting should have social media users asking questions.
"It's up to Canada to say, ‘is this enough?’” she said. “Are we happy with the way social media companies in the U.S. have interacted with Canada or does more need to be done to protect Canadians, not just during the exceptional period of elections, but also more broadly in their daily lives?”