"Dark ads" are a fallacious myth, it's just modern electioneering

Elliott Haworth
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US-style attack ad showing Jeremy Corbyn opposing anti-terrorism legislation has become the most-viewed ad in British political history, (Source: Facebook)

In the social media age, the ability to micro-target messages to specific sections of the electorate has revolutionised political campaigning.

In 2015, £1.3m was spent on social media advertising by all parties, 99 per cent of which went to Facebook. The Silicon Valley giant is a key player in this, and every, election.

Across the political spectrum, there have been cries that the practice is a “Wild West” and that it interferes in the democratic process. The deliberately sinister-sounding term “dark ads” (essentially just online content targeted to select social media users) has been bandied about by people whose stomachs always turn at the notion of money influencing politics.

But if such an efficient way of transmitting a message exists, why would political parties abstain from its use?

Complaints of an un-level playing field are misguided, since the tools employed are available to all. The issue lies in how a party uses them.

In this election, the Tories are said to have around 1,000 different ads, Labour over 1,200. A US-style attack ad showing Jeremy Corbyn opposing anti-terrorism legislation has become the most-viewed ad in British political history, with millions of views on Facebook and millions more elsewhere.

The Tories, it appears, are winning the social media battle. But to assume any sort of malpractice in doing so is facile. Facebook advertising is on a per-bid basis. It is obvious that a political party with a large budget will be able to outbid a smaller organisation or pressure group. It doesn’t make it undemocratic.

While public perception is mostly fallacious, the practice is not without its issues. The allocation of local or national spending, as exemplified in the Tory battle bus scandal, will likely hit the headlines after the election.

The Electoral Commission proposed that parties should record all their spending on social media, with the aim of “providing greater transparency on campaigner's activity and provide a fuller understanding of how technology is changing traditional campaign activities”.

But this is near-impossible, and easily evaded. Unless somebody sees an advert that is targeted specifically because they’re in a particular constituency, almost any other activity can be claimed to be national spending.

It’s a new and exciting world, and one we should welcome – albeit with caution. Those that have mastered the art will succeed.Those who fail will eat sour grapes, blaming technology, rather than their own failure to harness it.

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