By Uhanthaen Ravilojan
When scrolling through their Facebook feed, students might see everything from relatives they haven’t seen in ages, to another BuzzFeed quiz about which vegetable they are. What you might not expect while scrolling through Facebook is a video, by someone who looks exactly like you, on why you should vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.
That experience caught Maklane deWever, a fifth-year Business Management student, way off guard.
“I just saw a sponsored video of a guy in his mid-early-20s with red hair explaining the benefits of pipelines,” says deWever. “I’m a guy in my mid-early-20s with red hair. “
As the former RSU president, and recently on the frontlines of getting people to vote in the federal election, deWever knows how intense the attempts to get people involved with the voting process can be.
Ads like the one he encountered, which deWever calls “creepily targeted,” are currently being studied by the Ryerson Leadership Lab.
The study was conducted by director of research Sam Andrey, executive director and co-founder doctor Karim Bardeesy, and research assistant Lourdes David. They have partnered with Who Targets Me, an activist group formed during the 2017 U.K. elections and Vox Pop Labs, a data analytics company.
The study was funded by the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge through McGill University and the University of Ottawa.
Bardeesy is worried about the impact of targeted advertising on the national conversation. “An online advertisement one person sees might not be seen by someone else, whereas an ad that’s on a TV station can be seen by everybody,” he says.
Online advertising is an area of rapid growth in political advertising, and it’s an area that’s not well understood. Bardeesy’s research still works on finding fundamental information. “We’re trying to learn how advertisements are targeted. With radio and TV advertisements, you can only target by station, time of day and program, whereas [on] Facebook you can target right down to the individual person.”
Researchers gathered information by asking participants to download the Who Targets Me browser extension on either Google Chrome or Firefox.
The browser extension collects data on the sponsored posts appearing on participants’ Facebook feeds. The data is then analyzed to identify the strategies behind political campaigns on Facebook. These strategies are discussed in-depth on the Who Targets Me page on the Ryerson Leadership Labs website.
In addition to monitoring targeted advertising, Who Targets Me makes recommendations to advertisers and politicians to improve political discourse.
According to Surrey Now-Leader, a newspaper out of British Columbia, in response to Bill C-76, the elections modernization act, Facebook and Twitter changed their online advertisement to disclose how much money political parties have spent on advertising and keep a library of all political ads used on their site. This allows voters to monitor advertising and compare party voter engagement strategies.
Bardeesy is uncertain of the effectiveness of Facebook political advertising but stated that parties may be able to use it to further engage users that already support them.
Since political representatives often collect the contact information of potential supporters during door-to-door and phone campaigns, parties can specify their Facebook advertising to target only those who gave their information.
Parties will upload personal information they received from their canvassing such as age and location as well as interests, such as the pages that users have previously liked. Parties can also upload the names and contact information to Facebook so the site can check for accounts attached to that info. It then creates a “custom audience”—a demographic made of users with similar interests and attributes to those who already support them.
According to Who Targets Me page, the Conservative party targeted 98 per cent of its advertising based on location, while two per cent was targeted toward a custom audience. The Liberals targeted 56 per cent based on location, while the remainder was targeted using other custom audiences.
“Through Facebook political advertising, [parties] communicate differently to different people in a large variety of ways based on the massive amounts of data that they and Facebook have about voters,” says Bardeesy.
He also says the ramifications of this approach is that the shared understanding of what an election is about lessens.
For example, a party is talking about the carbon tax in Alberta, but not talking about the carbon tax in Ontario. They’re saying different things to different audiences.
This makes it hard to have a shared national conversation, according to Bardeesy—“which is really what elections are about.”
“There’s some evidence that Facebook political advertising is better for mobilization than persuasion,” says Bardeesy.
deWever’s problem with targeted ads is that it shifts the power balance away from individuals. “I think that ultimately undermines our ability to hold our elected officials accountable.”