Early indications from a project which seeks to track political advertising on Facebook suggests that Labour may be outspending the Conservatives in the early stages of the campaign.
Who Targets Me is seeking volunteers to help it track political advertising on Facebook. So far 3,500 have signed up enabling the scheme to log what political adverts are shown to them on the platform.
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So far around 70 per cent of the ads logged on Facebook have been by the Labour Party. But advertising is expected to pick up rapidly as the campaign continues and Who Targets Me does not know to what extent its volunteers are biased towards those Labour wants to target.
The Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook advertising ahead of the 2015 general election and are thought to have outspent Labour by around ten to one. Labour declared just over £16,000 worth of Facebook advertising but is believed to have spent more via agencies.
Such ads are known as “dark” advertising because they exist only on private Facebook networks and will disappear from the internet after the election.
Whereas TV advertising by political parties is banned in the UK, Facebook ads are almost entirely unregulated. It is not known the extent to which groups and individuals outside of political parties may be buying advertising to possibly circumvent electoral spending rules.
Sam Jeffers from Who Targets Me, formerly worked for digital agency Blue State Digital, told Press Gazette: “There is no requirement from the parties to show who they are advertising to and with what message. And a lot of the stuff they produce will disappear on 9 June.”
He said that much of the Facebook advertising will take the form of private Facebook posts delivered privately to specific groups.
He said: “What we are expecting to see is the volume of ads go dramatically up in the last couple of weeks before the election.”
The volunteer-run projects works by asking volunteers to download an extension to their Chrome internet browser.
The group said in a statement: “In the run up to the 2015 General Election a combined £1.3m was spent on targeted Facebook advertising by political parties.
“Such a phenomenon didn’t exist during the 2010 general election, the rise of dark ads has been swift and this trend can be observed globally, perhaps most noticeably in 2016 when the Trump campaign spent tens of millions of dollars funding digital advertising with variable language tweaked to each individual’s particular personality traits.
“In truth, nobody is completely sure of the scale campaigns are using big data and targeted advertising to affect our politics. Who Targets Me is recognising that we the people can use technology and big data to monitor the campaigns and defend the transparency of this democracy.”