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Will "dark ads" on Facebook really swing the 2017 general election?

Micro-targeting and personality profiling are set to be a key part of this year’s election – but are claims about their effectiveness exaggerated? 

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, it has been widely understood that Facebook swayed the outcome of both the United States presidential election and the EU Referendum. Micro-targeted advertising on the site – which is used by political parties to serve highly specific adverts to highly specific groups – has revolutionised politics as we know it.

During the 2015 election, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook advertising, and this year, Labour plan to spend almost the same. Like broadsheets, billboards, and broadcasts before them, Facebook adverts are a powerful tool for spreading a message to the masses. Unlike broadsheets, billboards, and broadcasts, however, Facebook advertising is at present almost entirely unregulated, leading to wide speculation about what exactly is going on.

“It's difficult to work out exactly what messages and facts campaigns and political parties are using to gain support,” says Louis Knight-Webb, a founder at “Who Targets Me”, a new plug-in that tracks how targeted adverts end up in your feed. Knight-Webb explains that Vote Leave claim to have spent 98 per cent of their advertising budget on digital adverts, but only those targeted can see the ads and therefore know where the money went. “It's clear that more research needs to be done.”

Who Targets Me hopes to shed light on who political parties are targeting and how. Amid multiple attention-grabbing headlines about the dangers of Facebook micro-targeting, The Guardian are asking their readers to submit examples of political adverts they see on Facebook, in order to better understand the phenomenon. In the meantime, grand claims are surfacing about the power of the social network and what are now known as “dark ads”.

“You can say to Facebook, I would like to make sure that I can micro-target that fisherman in certain parts of the UK so that they are specifically hearing that if you vote to leave that you will be able to change the way that the regulations are set for the fishing industry,” Gerry Gunster, a political campaigner at Leave.EU, told BBC Panorama on Monday night. The statement has now been extensively quoted in the media as proof of Facebook’s sinister micro-targeting and its role in securing Brexit.

Anyone who as ever used Facebook Ads Manager – the site’s service for creating and targeting adverts – knows that you can choose very specific, custom audiences for your posts. You can target people by location, age, gender, languages, job titles, and their interests. The first five are pretty fool proof – we tell Facebook all of this personal information willingly – the last relies on which Facebook pages you’ve “Liked”.

Only 48,296 people worldwide have bothered to list “Fisherman” as their job title on Facebook, and an additional 17,245,300 people have “expressed an interest in or like Pages related to Fisherman”. If I try to target an advert to both of these groups in, for example, Cornwall, Facebook puts the number of people who will see my advert at less than 1,000. It then warns me: “Your audience is too specific for your adverts to be shown. Try making it broader.” I can continue to post my advert. I doubt, however, that it will affect any referendums.

There is, in fact, a very strong chance you are one of these 17 million people who have expressed an interest in “Fisherman” – even if you are a receptionist/banker/doctor/person who is deathly allergic to fish. This is because despite all the hype, Facebook targeting can be exceptionally flawed. By clicking on your ad preferences, you will be able to see a list of things Facebook thinks that you like, which it then uses to target adverts towards you. Facebook’s knowledge can be eerie (it knows I like the colour red) but more often than not, it is hilariously wrong. The site thinks I like “pig”, “prohibition”, the sport “curling”, and the concept of “law enforcement”. It is also easily confused. A Twitter user told me the site thinks he likes the film The Sentinel simply because he worked at a local paper of the same name.  

By itself, then, Facebook targeting may not really be the spooky, conspiratorial, election-fixer that many headlines have make it out to be. Yet since January, it has emerged that political parties use other tools alongside the social network. Digital marketing companies such as Cambridge Analytica (henceforth CA) and Aggregate IQ have been working with politicians to better target ads. The former can mine your digital data (things like your online purchases, search history, and even your battery life) to profile you and then target you based on this profile. Simply put, even if you didn’t tell Facebook you’re a fisherman, CA can allegedly figure this out.

In January, Motherboard reported that CA were playing with psychographics by measuring people’s psychological states and personalities and then using this information to micro-target political adverts. The implication was that the company could predict anyone’s political leaning and therefore sway their votes – something many claimed lead to the election of Donald Trump. Yet CA now claim they never used psychographics for the Trump campaign and former employees have spoken out to say the company’s claims are exaggerated.

“There are a lot of big claims made by firms trying to win contracts,” says Who Targets Me founder Knight-Webb. Many have taken CA on its word about what it is capable of, leading to great publicity for the firm. “There is absolutely not enough transparency around how the big data firms helping political parties are using data. I would love to see the real level of detail big data firms, like Cambridge Analytica and Deep Index, have on citizens and just how effective they are at using that data in targeted marketing strategies.”

The kind of profiling done by CA is actually already a widespread practice. That isn’t to say it isn’t creepy, but there is as yet little evidence that it is as effective as CA claim. As Frederike Kaltheuner writes for Privacy International: “It’s one thing to profile people, and another to say that because of that profiling you are able to effectively change behaviour on a mass scale. Cambridge Analytica clearly does the former, but only claims (!) to succeed in the latter.”

As Kaltheuner points out, basically every party is using profiling and micro-targeting, meaning that it’s incredibly easy to retroactively shout “It works!” based on whoever wins. (Note: CA originally worked for Trump competitor Ted Cruz.) As it stands, it feels bold to claim that this type of campaigning will completely sway the 2017 general election in any party’s favour. Yes, Facebook will be a key battleground in this election, and yes, Facebook advertising will have a big part to play. But is it as grand as mind-control conspiracies make it seem? Can it really change and election which already seems so cut and dry (not to mention dull)?

Just because micro-targeting and profiling isn’t that grand, however, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be reformed before it gets better. The Guardian revealed yesterday that Facebook have hired ex-political aides to help create political campaigns on the site, meaning that without regulation the site’s influence on elections will only increase. Greater transparency is needed from Facebook, data companies, and political parties in order for the Electoral Commission to affectively scrutinise campaigns.

It seem likely, however, that it is money – rather than pseudo-psychological profiles – that will ultimately affect the election's outcome. The party that pours the most money into Facebook will see the greatest results, simply because more money equals more people reached. In Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s comprehensive book The British General Election of 2015, they reveal how budget differences meant Labour reached 16 million people on Facebook in their best month, compared to the Conservatives reaching 17 million each week. Ultimately, Knight-Webb hopes Who Targets Me will provide enough information to validate or debunk the widely-circulated claims about Facebook targeting. Until then, dark ads remain in the dark. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.

Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.

Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.