If you’ve ever scrolled through Facebook and wondered why a political ad wound up in your feed, an app may have the answer.
The software, Who Targets Me, recently helped thousands of voters in the last German and U.K. elections uncover how political parties were targeting them on social media — and its developer is angling to deploy it in other countries including Canada.
“We act as a backstop against misinformation and highly-targeted campaigns that sort of remove genuine debate from the public sphere,” said Sam Jeffers, who is scheduled to talk about his brainchild in Toronto next week as a visiting professor at Ryerson.
The timing is significant.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently vowed more transparency over political advertising amid criticism for the role the platform played in alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The social media heavyweight is also facing flak for facilitating the spread of so-called fake news and misinformation online.
“Facebook has really changed some of the dynamics of campaigning, and we’re not sure if regulators are yet on top of that,” he said. “Everyone has some vulnerabilities in their elections. It depends on the state of their political debate at that given moment.”
Jeffers said Facebook’s new measures are only a partial victory for transparency. Facebook promised to show which other ads an organization is running, which would shed light on “dark” posts.
Dark advertising enables parties to directly target users, meaning only the intended recipient gets to see the message. The tactic was reportedly used by President Donald Trump’s campaign to ease supporters’ doubts about whether a Mexican border wall would be built after statements suggested otherwise.
“We believe that when you see an ad, you should know who ran it and what other ads they’re running,” Joel Kaplan, a Facebook VP, said in a recent statement. “We hope that this will establish a new standard for our industry in ad transparency.”
Jeffers said Facebook should publish all data related to who gets scoped out.
Cue Who Targets Me.
Jeffers partnered with journalists and civic activists on the ground to mine data gleaned from citizens who voluntarily downloaded the free browser extension.
In Germany, they parsed more than 180,000 ads to find the nationalist right-wing AfD party was targeting users that may have also “liked” Angela Merkel’s page, or showed interest in “Liberalism.” The AfD ads mostly had to do with anti-refugee sentiment, exiting from international trade agreements and “bring back the Deutsche mark.”
In the U.K., parties tended to use “hyperlocal” ads to target battleground constituencies. The Conservative party also put scant resources into encouraging folks, and young people in particular, to register to vote, Jeffers said.
“You begin to get this sense of what the electoral strategies of the parties are,” he said.
The app is functional in Austria, where an election is happening this weekend, and will be rolled out in Switzerland, Italy and for the U.S. midterm elections. Canadians can’t see who targets them online just yet, but Jeffers said he’d roll it out closer to the vote.
While fake news and targeted political advertising has not been as pronounced a problem in Canada compared to the U.S., Minister Gould said the risk is “rapidly evolving.” Experts have echoed the warning.
“We’ve seen it in other election events around the world . . . This is something that we’ve seen as a growing trend and threat over the past number of years,” Gould said.
The minister was tight-lipped when pressed for details of Facebook’s announcement, but said the platform’s pledge to beef up cybersecurity is a first step toward protecting the next vote.
“It’s a broader conversation that we have to have. I’m glad we’re starting to have it here in Canada with runway leading up to an election,” she said.
Gould said transparency is key.
“That’s really critical because people need to make informed choices as they’re casting ballots and as they’re engaging with elected officials,” she said.
Elections Canada requires that political ads disclose who paid for them, but it’s also acceptable for an online ad to divulge that information after it’s viewed, on the page the ad links to. Political parties are also subject to spending limits, but Elections Canada doesn’t require them to divulge specifically if the ad was broadcast on social media, and that information isn’t available in real time during a campaign.
“We’re aware of rapid changes in digital communications and their influence — positive and negative — on the electoral process. We are currently examining this issue in more depth,” spokeswoman Melanie Wise said in an email.