In 2010, Facebook ran an experiment. By delivering “mobilisation messages” to 61 million users, the social network conclusively proved that it could boost voter turnout. The messages – which in reality were as simple as a collage showcasing your Friends who had already voted – generated 340,000 additional votes in the 2010 Congressional elections.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s digital team ran their own experiment. Via the social network that had conclusively proved its political power six years earlier, they ran three “major voter suppression operations”. Their aim? Not to increase voter turnout for Donald Trump (who, at the time, looked set to lose the election), but to discourage potential supporters of Hillary Clinton from bothering to turn up at all.
These operations were targeted at three groups that Clinton could potentially win over where Trump could not. White liberals, young women and African Americans were fed targeted Facebook advertisements that preyed on their individualities. African Americans, for example, were shown clips of Clinton saying that some African American males are “super predators”, while young women saw stories from people claiming they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. The former group were targeted even further, as Trump hoped to discourage African Americans who specifically lived in Florida from turning out (Trump went on to win the state with just over 100,000 votes).
The political power of a targeted Facebook advert is twofold. Firstly, it ensures the right messages reach the right people – something that could be incredibly influential when it comes to swing voters or key seats. Secondly, it ensures your message only reaches these people, with everyone else (including the Electoral Commission) in the dark about your campaign.
Last week Buzzfeed – with the help of the advert analysis tool Who Targets Me? – shed light on some of the Conservatives’ “dark ads” on Facebook. They revealed that the party promotes a wide array of anti-Jeremy Corbyn messages, targeted in “crucial constituencies”. The message of each is simple: Vote Theresa May.
But could the Tories not, theoretically, begin some Trump-style voter targeting? The recent polls that have shown a dramatic surge in support for Corbyn almost all rely on an unusually high youth turnout. Trump’s own digital suppression campaign began in the final days before the election, and there is seemingly nothing stopping anyone else doing the same.
Last month, a Facebook campaign by two citizens hoping to encourage youth turnout was “drowned out” by Tory dark ads. Charlotte Gerada, who ran the campaign, said her adverts encouraged young people in key seats to go out and vote by using Facebook’s targeting tools. However, when the cost of her adverts suddenly more than doubled, she realised another group was “bidding” to target the same people. After investigating, she discovered anti-Corbyn adverts had been posted in their place.
It is unlikely that the Conservatives wanted to specifically destroy Gerada’s campaign, and they were most likely simply using the same slots because both groups figured out that’s where they could be the most influential. However, if the Tories did want to run an anti-Corbyn campaign that discouraged people from turning up to vote, at present no one would be any the wiser. The party has refused to hand over examples of its adverts, and only organisations like Who Targets Me? are truly shedding light on this dark, unregulated world.
We also know the Tories are expected to spend twice as much as Labour on the election, and although data from Who Targets Me? suggested Labour was spending more on Facebook in the very early part of the campaign, the Tories have more money and more experience using Facebook to target voters.
On 8 June, your Facebook feed will be flooded with “I voted” statuses (and their cynical cousin, “Why is everyone posting that they voted?” statuses). It is apparent – indeed, empirically proven – what influence these can have. Campaigns attempting to suppress voter turnout are far less visible, yet after the election of Donald Trump it is arguable they can have the same impact.
By targeting young people with anti-Corbyn messages designed not to switch them to Theresa May, but leave them disillusioned enough to stay at home, the Conservatives could decrease turnout among exactly the group that most enthusiastically backs Labour.