Campaign decisions about digital strategy, which once upon a time existed in a largely siloed space, are now more in the open than ever before as some platforms embrace transparency, while other tech giants quit accepting political ads altogether.
Twitter is simply exiting political advertising entirely. Following new political advertising rules and legislation in Canada earlier this year, Google decided the best way to comply was to not accept political ads ahead of elections there. (It’s since opted to restrict targeting options in the U.S.)
Facebook, the most widely used platform, opted to comply and stay in the game, and in doing so, has offered a partial lifting of the veil on internal campaign decisions for anyone willing to look.
To be sure, transparency is a positive development, especially in a time when there’s increasing public mistrust and anxiety over how big tech is used in politics. But it also means that what were previously closely guarded internal decisions about ad strategy are now publicly accessible and in the open for anyone to draw conclusions about.
Canada’s recent federal election was the first since Facebook brought in a series of transparency measures in response to concerns about how the platform was being used in elections. This includes the previous 2018 move allowing anyone (not just those targeted) to see all ads a page is running, and more recently, the accompanying spending data is now available through Facebook’s Ad Library.
With the U.S. election cycle ramping up, and the general election in the U.K. now in full swing, here are some lessons from Facebook’s newfound transparency, that campaigns may wish to be mindful of:
Decisions are laid bare
Running A/B-type tests to see what resonates or going all-in on a single message? Those internal decisions have a public window now. At least one media outlet picked up on Canada’s Liberals running 7,000 different trial and error ads in the course of their re-election bid. In the ongoing UK election, a party’s testing of what candidate images and slogans work has become media fodder. All the data needed for these articles was available with just a few clicks in the Ad Library.
It exposes perceived vulnerabilities
Keeping an eye on a campaign’s ad spending decisions could offer insight into what vulnerabilities they’re feeling pressure about. For example, an attack from Canada’s Conservatives over a new Liberal tax on home sales led to several paid Liberal ad buys putting the party on the defensive, denying the tax hike. Clearly, the Conservative attack hit a nerve in an already closer-than-expected election.
Geographic targets are put into public focus
Based on publicly available information in the Ad Library, anyone can draw reasonable conclusions about which seats are being targeted by a party and which are not. While Canada’s left-wing NDP spoke about the importance of seats in Quebec, the Ad Library revealed to media that the party was shifting from resources away from Quebec and over to British Columbia (sure enough on Election Day, the party’s previous gains in Quebec were wiped out). Meanwhile, with the drawn-out state-by-state U.S. primary system, keeping an eye on ad spending data for surges ahead of key calendar dates could give insight on which campaigns are making serious plays ahead of the vote in each state, and which are resigned to their fate.
Dog whistles are heard by everyone
Since the 2018 decision to show what ads are being run, campaigns don’t need to wait until someone somewhere says “I saw an ad” to learn about their competitor’s attack ads. As long as a campaign is regularly checking in with publicly available data to see what paid ads their competitors are pushing, they can respond in a timely way. But again, the transparency goes both ways.
There are no issue back channels
Online petitions and other data capture tools focused on specific issues are an increasingly common way to build out voter profiles. There’s a lot to be learned about what issues a campaign is looking to data capture on, and perhaps as importantly, which issues they’re not data capturing on.
You can learn a lot about your competitor’s efforts by seeing what issues they’re trying to mobilize the electorate behind. The content of the ads is available and will remain accessible in Facebook’s archive for years, even if a campaign page is itself deleted.
With the internet’s dominant platform making advertising practices transparent in an unprecedented way, campaigns shouldn’t be surprised to get questions about their ad decisions and what they say about the broader campaign. In the current climate, where newsrooms are under pressure to do more with less, the information made public in Ad Library makes for an easy pursuit for someone with a filing deadline. Expect to see a lot more stories drawing conclusions about campaign digital decisions in 2020 and beyond.
Peter Csillag is the director of public affairs and campaigns with Enterprise Canada, a national strategic communications firm.