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  1. ITV Report

How are political parties using Facebook to election campaign in 2019?

Can you spot the difference? Political parties are testing ads on Facebook ahead of the election. Credit: Facebook
  • By ITV News Trainee Fred Dimbleby

No, this is not a game of political spot the difference.

These are three ads the Liberal Democrats ran in the early stages of this election campaign.

The ads have similar messages and formats but are phrased slightly differently – testing certain wording and photos to find the most effective combination.

We can see this testing because of a new tool available at this general election – the Facebook ad library.

In the 2017 General Election, online advertising was a murky haze and only fully understood by specialists like Who Targets Me who spent years tracking where people were targeted and how political groups and parties sold their messages to the voters.

Thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and an increased wariness of unregulated digital political advertising, this has all changed and we are now able to open up the brains of the political campaigns to see how they are targeting you and why.

Take an issue that dominated the early stages of this campaign – the flooding in vast swathes of the country - we can now see the immediate advertising reaction to these events.

These adverts were launched in the days after the floods.

We will come on to the different advertising strategies of the campaigns, but just from this one issue you can see how much more access we have to the campaigning that takes place online, and in particular, social media.

Local campaigns responded quickly to the flooding. Credit: Facebook

The transparency is not perfect - on Facebook, you cannot see exactly where an ad is being focused and can only see if an ad is shown to voters in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland - but it is a huge step forward.

The leaders have been campaigning but a battle for voters is also being waged online. Credit: PA

As we will see, it allows us to see how political groups target voters and how their ads end up on certain feeds, while you are scrolling through the hundredth picture of your second cousin’s baby, or watching the tenth video in a row about useful life hacks that you will almost certainly never use.

  • Tories back their leader
Boris Johnson is shown in the majority of Tory Facebook ads. Credit: Facebook

If you scroll through the ads the Conservative Party has published, one face is repeated over and over – that of Boris Johnson.

Their ad campaign is based on what they see as their strongest assets – Johnson and Brexit.

While there are some ads that focus on other sections of Tory policy, like the policing ad on the left, they mostly talk about non-Brexit policy when it is attacking the Labour party. Take the two below as examples:

Tory attack ads focus on Labour and often include images of Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team. Credit: Facebook

Both discuss policy but only as an attack with a focus on Mr Corbyn’s face to make this election about personality.

If you wanted a stronger sign of the Tory’s focus on their leader, they spent more than £22,000 on ads from his official page in the first week of the election campaign.

As a comparison, in that same week, the Labour Party spent £178 on ads from the Jeremy Corbyn page.

  • Labour’s policy push
Labour focus on policy, especially on health, the environment and Brexit. Credit: Facebook

Unlike the Tories, Labour advertising has been prioritising policy, especially on the NHS, the environment and Brexit.

They do run some attack ads, focused on Johnson, but the majority of their ads try to take the personality out of the election and shift to their safer ground of policy.

This also means they have very few ads involving Mr Corbyn and, even if you look on ads from his Facebook page, Corbyn's own almost complete absence is notable.

An interesting part of Labour’s ad campaign is its focus on a second referendum.

They have a slew of ads promoting Labour’s Brexit policy.

Considering their relative silence about this issue during the campaign, their focus on it online shows the type of voter they are trying to target on Facebook.

  • Lib Dems advertising barrage
The Lib Dems buy thousands of ads and prioritise Brexit and their leader, Jo Swinson. Credit: Facebook

The Lib Dems have a radically different advertising campaign to the other major parties.

Labour and the Tories spend a lot on individual adverts, but they don’t publish that many of them, while the Lib Dems spend little on each advert but publish them in their thousands.

In one day from the first week of the campaign, they had 1,394 ads online – in comparison the Tories had 7 and Labour had 10.

Many of their ads focus on Brexit as the above examples show. Jo Swinson also appears in a number of their ads sometimes on her own and sometimes contrasted with other leaders.

Some of their ads use a process called dynamic creative where, according to Facebook: “Advertisers upload multiple image and text options, and the best-performing combination for the audience is automatically created.”

  • The Brexit Party’s simple formula
The Brexit Party opt for the 'personalised kids book' method of advertising. Credit: Facebook

The Brexit Party had been relatively silent since their announcement about withdrawing from 317 seats, but their advertising campaign has now sprung back into action.

They opt for using a single video and targeting it at multiple constituencies, simply changing the constituency name at the start of the ad.

Their strategy seems to be based on those personalised kids’ books you can buy where you have a generic story but you can decide the name of the protagonist – they are almost identical but different enough that each consumer feels personally targeted.

  • Scotland’s a different game
Unlikely alliances and unionism lead the online campaign in Scotland. Credit: Facebook

Most parties have different ad strategies for England, Wales, and Scotland. The Tory ads there show this with their focus on unionism.

The right hand one even tries to persuade Labour voters to vote for them to stop a second independence referendum – an alliance that is almost unthinkable in England or Wales.

The SNP meanwhile are focusing their campaigning on buying local ads and have so far purchased no ads from their national party page.

  • Brexit dominates in Northern Ireland
Brexit dominates the Northern Ireland online campaign, while the DUP opt for local issues. Credit: Facebook

Parties in Northern Ireland have been less keen to jump on the Facebook ad train but a trend is emerging here.

Remain parties, especially the SDLP and Alliance, are trying to make the election about Brexit and spend on attack ads against the Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP, on the other hand, are trying to shift the debate with their online ads using the tagline ‘Lets Get Northern Ireland Moving Again’.

Sinn Féin have not bought any online ads so far, but their one local ad in Nigel Dodds’ marginal constituency again focuses on the B-word calling Dodds the ‘Brexit architect’.

  • Non-parties joining in on the fun
Non-parties on both sides are spending on Facebook ads. Credit: Facebook

Several non-party groups are also paying for Facebook ads. Pro-Remain group Best for Britain has spent tens of thousands putting out register to vote ads, targeted at younger voting groups.

Labour grassroots movement Momentum have also started to spend with ads focussing far more on Corbyn than the national Labour campaign.

Working4UK and the Campaign against Corbynism lead the response with both attacking the Labour leader along with senior party figures.

  • Spending in the campaign from the 7-15 November according to the Facebook ad library
£72,742
Lib Dem leading the parties in ad spending
£66,311
Labour follows closely behind
£62,462
The Tories spend less on their National page than the other main parties
£22,723
But they also advertise on their leader's Facebook page so lead in overall spend
£30,269
The Brexit Party were slow to the ad game but are now spending