Who Targets Me in Canada: how Facebook is driving democratic discourse
The Conservatives haven’t been attacking Justin Trudeau much - but two pro-Conservative networks are
October 7, 2019
With two weeks until election day, the Liberal and Conservative parties are in full election swing both on the ground and online. In a very Canadian fashion, both of their Facebook ads have been largely positive and platform driven. However, parties have their own subversive support networks who are doing this negative work for them and spending their own money to make it happen. The largest spenders have been the national ‘Proud’ networks which run aggressive attack ads in both video and photo often contrasting Justin Trudeau to Andrew Scheer. Regardless of partisan affiliation, both networks and the ads they run pose problems for our digital democracy, leaving Canadians ignorant and susceptible to the underbelly of political advertising.
Canada’s federal election is underway and the campaign is in full swing both in person and online. Political parties and third parties in Canada are increasingly using Facebook as a means to reach voters and shift perceptions in increasingly targeted ways, but relatively little research or knowledge mobilization has been conducted in Canada to fill this societal blind spot.
To address this gap, Who Targets Me is partnering with the Ryerson Leadership Lab and Vox Pop Labs on a new project to monitor how Canadians are being targeted on Facebook this federal election. A panel of Canadians are being recruited to download the Who Targets Me browser extension, which collects paid political advertisements from participants’ News Feeds. With this information, the extension provides the participant with a personalised breakdown of all the political ads they encountered, along with links to them, and information about why they were targeted with that message.
This initiative is part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Rebuilding the Public Square project, which is aiming to examine what is driving Canada apart online and how we can bring people back together. The project’s survey of Canadians found that social media companies are the least trusted organizations when it comes to doing what is in the best interest of the public, and Facebook is the least trusted of them all. It also found that one in four Canadians use Facebook as a primary news source and about 30% of Canadians are sharing or commenting on political and news posts.
The new project will continue building on this data to answer pressing questions on political election advertising in Canada, including the targets, demographics, authors and content of political ads through the federal election period. As well, it will help to practically evaluate the effectiveness of Canada’s new political advertising regulations and Facebook’s response. The best way to further our collective understanding and keep Canadians informed is to conduct research projects like this, to bring increased awareness, transparency, and accountability online.
To date, there are over 600 active users of Who Targets Me in Canada with more joining every day - join this project and stay informed by downloading the plug-in here: https://whotargets.me.
What are we hearing and seeing?
Over halfway into the election campaign, we are already seeing tiered patterns in spending, clear campaign attitudes and varying messages from loyal sources. This post will highlight the current spending and political ad tactics of the Conservative Party of Canada and the Liberal Party of Canada as well explore the world of major third party advertisers in political campaigns. So far, both campaigns run directly from party Facebook pages have been very positive and platform driven. There have not been much slanderous or negative messaging taking political jabs at their opponents from either of their official pages online. Instead they have centered around their specific campaign promises, with punchy political taglines, directed to all Canadians.
Online campaigns have become equally as important as on the ground campaigns, providing a new tool to gain support and influence voters before the election. For each of the parties, they have a main political party Facebook page as well as their leader’s own personal page. With this in mind, we looked at the main spending avenues of both political parties and took into consideration both of these pages as avenues for political ad spending. We analyzed data from Facebook’s Ad Library, and found that the Conservative’s Facebook page is the largest single spender, with over $136,000 spent in the last week. However, Andrew Scheer’s page has not spent anything in the last two weeks but the majority of Conservative messages feature him describing one of their proposed policies. Interestingly, when we turn to the Liberal camp, the Facebook pages for the Liberals and Justin Trudeau have collectively spent nearly $210,000 over the same period. As we mentioned these funds were used to promote positive messaging to Canadians targeting relevant information to people who would be the most interested.
Third parties and network attack ads
Despite the obvious target of Justin Trudeau’s brown/blackface revelations, the Conservative ads have largely focused on policy and run fewer ads directly attacking the incumbent Prime Minister.
But even though the mainstream parties are not sending out negative messages online, Canadians are still seeing plenty of those messages.
Instead, the expected attack ads are being run and sponsored largely by two Facebook page networks with close historical ties to the Conservative Party - together the largest recent third-party spenders on Facebook ads, at over $45,000 in the last week.
One network, who we will refer to as the title of their largest page, ‘Proud to be Canadian’, includes affiliates ‘New Brunswick Proud’, ‘Fièrement Nouveau-Brunswick’, ‘Nova Scotia Proud’, ‘NL Strong’, ‘Quebec FIER’, ‘Quebec Proud’, ‘Alberta Proud’, ‘BC Strong’ and ‘Ontario Strong’. All of these pages share similar content, but are tailored to conservatives based in each province. Recent Elections Canada filings clarified that all of these pages are funded by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
The second network have based their campaign around the ‘Canada Proud’ Facebook page, which works alongside ‘Ontario Proud’ and ‘BC Proud’. Although separate, the two networks appear to serve a similar purpose, focusing attacks on the behaviour of Justin Trudeau, often contrasting it with that of his opponent, Andrew Scheer.
For example, ‘Proud to be a Canadian’ reached up to 100,000 Canadians with the ad below in late September. It shows Andrew Scheer as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Justin Trudeau in brownface as a school teacher, when they were both 29 years old. Using the power of their Facebook network, the ad also ran on New Brunswick Proud and similar ads ran on the other associated pages.
The ‘Canada Proud’ network primarily uses emotional, entertaining and engaging video in their ads with overlaying text to draw the user into clicking, watching and eventually sharing the post. By selecting video as their primary ad format, they rely heavily on unique medium affordances including the ‘viral’ shareability of video to reach maximum viewership.
For example, in this Canada Proud ad, Justin Trudeau is ‘roasted’ by Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta. Five different versions of the ad were boosted for a total of approximately $4,000 earning between 220,000 and 500,000 impressions. However, when we look at the non-paid engagement using data provided by the users of Who Targets Me, we can see it has been shared 12,000 times, likely doubling its reach and has so far, been viewed over 450,000 times.
Similarly, this ad (with 350,000 to 700,000 paid impressions costing $4,000) focuses on Trudeau’s answer to a question about his wearing ‘brownface’, has received 10,000 shares and 4,500 comments to date, again helping the video travel much further than would have been the case for paid reach alone. It currently has over 650,000 views. Therefore political parties cannot rely solely on paid content to get their message out to Canadians -- the content itself has to also be topical, relatable and shareable within their networks.
Targeted ads takes political advertising to a national level
The goal of creating highly shareable content is even clearer when we look at how the ads are targeted. First, a network, organization or person, must find an audience of potential viewers, identify the people who actually view and engage with the videos, and then continue to promote further content to them in the expectation they’ll share your content. It is important to note, that when content is shared, it loses the ‘sponsored’ designation, while earning ‘social proof’ from the fact that one of your friends shared it. This model ensures that targeted ads are being seen and shared among a base audience who will agree and spread the message with their own network of like minded people.
For example, again using data provided by the users of Who Targets Me, we can see that Canada Proud created an initial audience by targeting people interested in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We can speculate that this audience likely have or continue to be Conservative supporters.
Subsequent ads target those same people who initially interacted with their content. This chain effect ensures that the message is more likely to reach people who have previously interacted with it and increases the efficiency of Canada Proud’s campaign.
The impact of these networks on global social platforms
Pages and ads like these pose a problem for voters. Organisations like the ‘Proud’ networks or the people behind them are not commonly known and they typically don’t have an identified spokesperson. They’re arms-length enough from a political party to be plausibly deniable, while simultaneously contributing to the polarizing online political discourse. Third party interveners like the ‘Proud’ networks and their left-wing counterparts push attacks further than the party would typically go. Furthermore, if you see their content, you’re quite likely to do so because one of your family or friends shared it, which makes it still harder to track down the original source and separate truth from fiction.
These pages also pose a problem for platforms like Facebook. While transparency brings these networks closer to scrutiny, their behaviour - which is legal, though somewhat untrustworthy - is only possible at any scale because it’s cheap and easy to reach large numbers of people through social media. Of course, many trustworthy actors also benefit from the mobilization and mass communication efforts of social media but less well intended groups do as well. Separating the good from the bad is fiendishly difficult, particularly at the scale of a global platform.
While a couple of hundred thousand dollars of advertising is a drop in the vast ocean of Facebook’s revenues, the problems it creates speak to the challenges that new technology creates and faces. When social media platforms cannot or will not rule on what should or shouldn’t be available on their service, society ultimately looks to government to intervene.
Stay tuned for our series of reports that we will be releasing in the coming weeks. In the meantime, keep a look out for political advertising on your feed and download Who Targets Me today.