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Revealed: How political parties are using Facebook ‘dark adverts’ to target Islington voters

PUBLISHED: 15:24 08 June 2017 | UPDATED: 15:24 08 June 2017

These Facebook dark adverts were posted at voters in Islington by the Conservatives (left), Labour (top right) and the Liberal Democrats

These Facebook dark adverts were posted at voters in Islington by the Conservatives (left), Labour (top right) and the Liberal Democrats

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Political parties have targeted people in Islington almost 100 times in the last six weeks using Facebook “dark adverts” to try and influence votes.

As voters head to the polls, the Gazette can reveal how political ads containing specific messages have played a part in local campaigning.

So called “dark ads” on Facebook are personalised commercials shown to users based on age, sex and interests.

Some groups blame this type of advertising for strongly influencing last year’s Brexit vote.

Will Moy, director of fact checking website Full Fact, said: “It’s possible to target dark ads at millions of people in this country without the rest of us knowing about it.

The Conservatives targeted this Facebook dark advert attacking Labour at users in Islington The Conservatives targeted this Facebook dark advert attacking Labour at users in Islington

“Inaccurate information could be spreading with no one to scrutinise it.”

Unlike billboards or TV ads, which everyone can see, targeted Facebook advertising is unique to each user and so is extremely difficult to track. It is currently completely unregulated.

But a new British citizen-data group called Who Targets Me? is attempting to monitor dark ads using an extension on the Chrome browser.

The Gazette has been given access to the data by The Bureau Local, part of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Islington dark adverts: This Facebook ad posted by Labour attacks the Liberal Democrats Islington dark adverts: This Facebook ad posted by Labour attacks the Liberal Democrats

Their sample shows 65 dark adverts were shown to Facebook users in Islington North and 32 in Islington South and Finsbury since April 28, although the true figures are likely to be far higher.

The Conservatives posted only one advert, in Islington North, attacking Labour over plans to reduce the inheritance tax threshold to £425,000. It says: “Revealed: Corbyn’s tax on 3.9million family homes”.

Labour posted the most dark ads in both constituencies, 45, many promoting the scrapping of tuition fees. Some attack the Liberal Democrats saying: “They broke their promises before and they would do it again.”

The Lib Dems had 22 ads and focused on pro-EU messages and the NHS, telling voters “Tim Farron wants to hear from you”.

The Liberal Democrats used Facebook to encourage Islington voters to contact party leader Tim Farron about the NHS The Liberal Democrats used Facebook to encourage Islington voters to contact party leader Tim Farron about the NHS

The Greens had 19. Their “Do you know how Green you are really?” ads showed people agreeing with policies only to find out later they are from the Green Party.

Louis Knight-Webb, co-founder of Who Targets Me?, said it was important to understand how Facebook dark ads may be influencing elections.

“It’s my personal hope that further down the line this data will be useful in bringing about electoral reform,” he said.

None of the parties commented.

Dark ads: This Green video showed interviews with people questioned about the party's policies Dark ads: This Green video showed interviews with people questioned about the party's policies

THE NATIONAL PICTURE
How are political parties using dark ads nationally?

According to The Bureau Local, which has analysed data about 889 Facebook dark adverts nationally, the Conservatives are heavily targeting Jeremy Corbyn - with nine out of 10 of their adverts attacking him.

The Labour Party, by contrast, is hardly mentioning Theresa May in its social media campaign with only 9 per cent of the 136 different ads seen referring to the prime minister. The adverts Labour is promoting hardest are not related to policy, but are urging people to get out and vote. The next most common topics addressed in paid-for ads by the party are the NHS and tuition fees.

The Conservatives are focusing most on Brexit, the economy and security, while the Liberal Democrats are using Facebook ads to

talk about Brexit and dementia but also to seek donations.

The data taken from the Facebook feeds of more than 8,000 voters nationally has been gathered by the citizen data project Who Targets Me?.

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