Make no mistake: more than any election that has gone before, the snap December poll is one that will be won and lost online. Parties and campaigns have been pumping out thousands of adverts – with Facebook and Instagram the primary battlegrounds in this ever-evolving digital scrap.
But how has each party been doing? What messages are they pushing, how much are they spending, and – most importantly – how many people have they managed to reach? To try and make sense of it all, each week WIRED will be taking an analytical look at the big stories hidden in Facebook’s labyrinthian ad library.
First, a caveat. Facebook’s UK ad library is still limited in what it shows. It doesn’t, for example, provide a daily breakdown of spending, as it helpfully does in the US, and its figures on spending and impressions are only provided as broad ranges. In addition, spending figures are only provided in aggregate with a three-day delay, making it harder to efficiently monitor spending in real time.
To try and get a fuller picture, we’ve worked with CrossCheck, a collaborative reporting network led by First Draft, to help shed light on the digital front of the political battle. Our analysis is focussed on the parties that polled highest at the 2019 European Parliament election.
The Labour Party
Messaging: “Real change” looks poised to become Labour’s main watchword during this campaign, as it featured in over a quarter of the ads (26 out of 80), either in the caption or in the image. In those ads, Corbyn’s pitch is that his programme of economic reform would bring about change and “rebuild” the country. Shortly after the election was triggered, Labour ran over thirty ads asking supporters for donations. Once the campaign started in earnest, Labour’s messaging focused mainly on opposition to fracking, defending the NHS from Donald Trump post-Brexit, and, in the last few days, on Labour’s policy of offering a final vote on the Brexit deal.
Number of adverts: Between October 30 and November 7, the Labour Party ran 80 ads on Facebook. Of these, one also ran on Instagram – specifically, an ad attacking Conservative candidate for Gower, Francesca O’Brien, for her comments on benefit claimants.
Reach: CrossCheck estimates that Labour ads raked in between 2.9 million and 3.5 million impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: In that period, CrossCheck estimates that Labour spent between £17,103 and £26,657 on Facebook ads.
Targeting: During its first week of campaigning, Labour does not seem to have relied on audience segmentation too heavily, even if ads criticising Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal have been targeted mainly at people under 35.
Notable facts: Theoretically not a Labour ad, but it is worth pointing out Jeremy Corbyn’s page putting out a Facebook and Instagram ad in which the Labour leader said “Milton Keynes is a place to be proud of but it needs real change.” That was a direct response to a Conservative ad campaign lambasting Corbyn for some past remarks on voters from the area.
Meanwhile, on Google: The Labour Party ran six ads on Google since October 30. The messaging focused on Brexit and Labour’s policy of giving voters “a final say”, and offering people the change to receive the party’s manifesto when it launches.
Messaging: The first salvo of adverts were targeted at Milton Keynes, and featured some snarky remarks Jeremy Corbyn made in 2011 about that constituency’s voters. Most of the other ads were laser-focused on various Labour-held marginal (and less marginal) seats, warning voters that “a vote for anyone else, including the Brexit Party, will just create a hung Parliament with more delay, confusion, and indecision.” Another set of ads featured various Tory candidates. On November 6, the page put out three videos promoting Boris Johnson’s plan for Brexit, the NHS, and the economy – while also subtly drumming up the “people v Parliament” narrative. Finally, on November 7, Labour MP Ian Austin’s fulminations against Corbyn were featured in two series of ads.
Number of ads: Between October 30 and November 7, the Conservatives ran 106 ads on Facebook, of which 99 also ran on Instagram.
Reach: CrossCheck estimates that the Conservatives’ ads reached between 5.4 million and 6.3 million impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: According to CrossCheck’s estimate, in that period, the Conservatives spent between £52,400 and £69,294 on Facebook and Instagram ads.
Targeting: The most intriguing example was an ad published on November 6 in which a very similar message was presented in two different versions: a memified, disco-music variant targeted at men under 35, and a more traditional, reassuring one for over-55s.
Notable facts: This week, the real dark-art slam dunk did not take place on Facebook or Instagram, but on Twitter, where the Conservatives shared a video of Labour’s Keir Starmer at a loss for words following a question on Brexit. In fact, Starmer had promptly answered the question: the Conservatives had doctored the video. While not an ad (Twitter has banned all political advertising on its platform), it still clocked 892,000 views at the time of writing.
Messaging: The Liberal Democrats’ advertising strategy is dominated by one overarching theme: that they are the party of the Remain voter. Across multiple video and picture ads, most featuring their leader Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems emphasise that “if you want to stop Brexit be a Liberal Democrat voter”, and that they represent “the biggest Remain party”, equipped to halt this “national embarrassment.”
The party promises to stop Brexit and invest the £50 billion Remain bonus in public services and tackling inequality. Other secondary trends are an emphasis on improving the UK’s mental health services, and a series of ads focusing on the incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn.
Number of ads: Between October 30 and November 7, the Lib Dems ran 537 ads on Facebook.
Impressions: CrossCheck estimates that Lib Dem ads raked in between 2.5 million and 3.6 million impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: According to CrossCheck’s estimate, in that period, the Liberal Democrats spent between £13,950 and £67,022 on Facebook ads.
Something to note: The Lib Dems have splurged: 537 ads is a higher number than all of the other parties combined. Another notable trend is their savaging of Corbyn – Boris Johnson is described as offering “more of the same”, while Corbyn is accused of being pro-Brexit, stuck in the past, too weak to lead the country forward and letting down Remainers.
Notable facts: The £50 billion Remain bonus ads are targeted towards younger voters, with many not aimed at anyone over the age of 65 at all.
Messaging: The Brexit Party’s ad campaign began on November 5 with a video of Jean-Claude Juncker and Boris Johnson shaking hands, captioned “Does this sound like the Brexit you voted for?” The video claims that EU judges can still override our laws. Another series of ads encourage voters to come and see Nigel Farage in Workington, Carlisle, Sedgefield and Newport. Another claims that a vote for the Tories in Barking would lead to a Jeremy Corbyn victory, because “Only The Brexit Party can beat Corbyn’s Labour in Barking”.
Reach: CrossCheck estimates that Brexit Party ads raked in between 478,000 and 630,000 impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: According to CrossCheck’s estimate, in that period, the Brexit Party spent between £6,486 and £11,902 on Facebook ads.
Targeting: The Brexit Party’s ads primarily targeted men aged 55 or older. In fact, in the Juncker/Boris ad, engagement increases entirely parallel to age: 18-24 year olds making up just one per cent of those targeted.
Number of ads: Between October 30 and November 7, the Brexit Party ran 57 ads on Facebook.
Notable Fact: The adverts targeted at Workington, Carlisle, Sedgefield and Newport, while still skewing towards the older generation, have a broader demographic target compared to the party’s other ads.
Google: The Brexit Party has run 17 ads on Google since October 30. These link to BorisBrexitDeal.com, a line-by-line critique of Johnson’s Brexit deal. Three of the ads were removed for violating Google’s advertising policy.
Best For Britain
Messaging: As one of the main anti-Brexit campaigns, Best for Britain has focused its ads on two themes: get people registered to vote, and get them to vote tactically in order to stop the Conservatives from gaining a majority that would allow Johnson’s Brexit deal to go through. The tactical voting tool promoted in the ads is the Get Voting! website.
Number of ads: Between October 30 and November 7, Best for Britain ran 33 ads, of which 24 were also published on Instagram.
Reach: CrossCheck estimates that Best for Britain’s ads garnered between 4,8 million and 5.3 million impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: According to CrossCheck’s estimate, in that period, Best for Britain spent between £60,166 and £75,807 on Facebook ads.
Targeting: Halloween-themed ads encouraging people to register to vote were mostly targeted at people under 25, and a couple of ads encouraging women to vote were – understandably – targeted at women. In general, the targeting skewed younger and was mainly aimed at people under the age of 45.
Notable facts: Best for Britain’s tactical voting model has been criticised by Labour supporters, who alleged it was designed to favour Liberal Democrat candidates even in Labour-Conservative marginal seats. The campaign stuck to its guns, saying the model was based “on solid data”.
Messaging: The left-wing organisation spun off from Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign has so far stuck to fundraising. All its video-ads – some featuring Corbyn himself – called on potential supporters to donate and help Momentum raise £200,000 by November 3. Two ads also highlighted the climate crisis, and attacked big banks for funding the fossil fuel industry.
Number of ads: Between October 30 and November 7, Momentum ran seven ads on both Facebook and Instagram. (One ad could not be found in the Ad library, even if its ID is present in the API data.)
Reach: CrossCheck estimates that Momentum’s ads attained between 157,000 and 186,000 impressions between October 30 and November 7.
Spending: According to CrossCheck’s estimate, Momentum spent between £900 and £1593 on Facebook and Instagram ads.
Targeting: In general skewing young, but not dramatically so. More interesting is the fact that almost all ads appear to be targeting men more than women – in one case, 89 per cent of the ad’s viewers were men.
Notable facts: Momentum’s campaign arguably worked: its national coordinator Laura Parker announced on Monday that the group had bagged £250,000 in a record time. Later in the week, Momentum launched a website to coordinate campaigning operations across the UK.
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