Have you noticed that your Facebook and Instagram feed has recently been filled with political advertising? Strategies on social media by many parties and candidates aim to bypass the mainstream media to speak directly to voters, but they are often not as complex as expected, writes Glen Kefford of the University of Queensland.
As part of a the team is studying a digital companywe track what parties and candidates do with their Facebook and Instagram ads during the election campaign.
Using ads collected from Facebook Advertising Library API (containing sponsorship messages declared advertisers as political), we tracking advertising costs of about 4,000 pages. We collect fresh data every six hours.
Halfway through the election campaign, there are clear themes in how parties and candidates campaign online.
Pre-election advertising: high spending on Labor and Labor – and political fragmentation
First, it’s a really significant expense from the “tea” independents. Historically, many successful federal independents (such as Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshot, or Katie McGowan) have come from regional districts.
But they rarely had the resources to run a campaign of the magnitude we see in central urban “teals,” such as Monique Ryan (representing Kuyong’s chair against Treasurer Josh Friedenberg).
Some spend 4,000-5,000 Australian dollars a week on advertising on Facebook and Instagram. It’s huge. Very few candidates from the main parties usually spend this amount. Friedenberg does this to try to save his place.
The second topic is that Labor is spending more than the coalition. It is the product of a Labor review after the 2019 election that condemns their digital campaign and highlights the first digital strategy.
Third, we see a real diversity of spending in a number of parties and candidates – for example, Jackie Lambie in Tasmania, Rex Patrick in South Australia, the Liberal Democrats and the United Australian Party in Queensland.
This reflects the wider fragmentation of the political landscape in Australia. The federal election in Australia is becoming more complex and multidimensional, and the online campaign is witnessing this trajectory.
What do candidates and parties write about?
In the inner city centers, where the independents are involved, the number one problem in the vast majority is climate change. But “environment” or “climate” is not one of the key terms we have found for major parties across Australia. Instead, work, Medicare and health are more prominent.
For those in remote metropolitan and regional areas, the data show that the cost of living is a key issue that the parties have identified as decisive for their voting.
Negative agitation is also manifested. One of the main terms that appear in the advertising of the main parties is “lies”.
Talk about “micro-targeting” can be put with a share
Although there is always talk of clear and complex micro-targeting strategies, there is good reason to fear such claims.
There is a belief that we live in this incredible digital age when every message is tailored to our interests or our personality. But the reality is completely different.
In fact, a large number of digital companies are not so focused. Clive Palmer’s campaign is an extreme example of this, the “carpet bombardment” of the electorate with messages of “freedom.” (A reasonable refutation might be: can I not receive these messages?)
The reality is that most political advertising on the Internet is a little more than what I describe in my a recent book as a form “narrowed”Where targeting is based on the basic segmentation of voters by demographic or geographic groups.
Although many of the methods we see in Australian election campaigns have been used abroad, especially in the US and the UK, our electoral system and electoral rules are different; a mixed electoral system and compulsory voting are tremendously changing the dynamics.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, the main focus is to “go to the polls” rather than persuade voters. But evidence suggests that the impact of digital campaigns on mobilization is limited. To convince, yes even less.
Most parties also lack the resources to engage in highly differentiated and focused campaigning.
A study I recently conducted with colleagues from six advanced democracies, we showed most of the company’s operations are based on existing methods and are much less sophisticated than is often assumed.
The digital campaign matters because voters are online. It educates, informs, manages conversation and can affect social cohesion.
But the idea of digital campaigning – a canary in a coal mine of electoral manipulation in Australia – is hyperbole.
Data privacy is a broader issue
Two important issues of the digital company that we should be concerned about are data privacy and cybersecurity.
Australia is one of the few developed democracies where political parties are completely exempt from privacy laws.
They can get a variety of information about you from the Australian Electoral Commission, from the data they collect when they talk to voters, and from digital tracking data.
Concerns about privacy are significant, but also the wider risk of domestic or foreign entities seeking to obtain this data to sow discord.
Since 2016, political parties in countries such as Australia, The UK, the US, Germany, Italy and Canada have been the targets of cybersecurity attacks. Many believe political parties weak link in electoral security democracy.
This poses a wider risk to all of us.
It is important for us to keep track of what parties and candidates are doing online during the campaign.
But we also need to determine where the real vulnerabilities are, as online threats are likely to only increase.
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