Who Targets Me: Political Advertising in the 2019 Canadian Federal Election

As an award recipient of the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge, the Ryerson Leadership Lab has partnered with Vox Pop Labs and Visiting Global Fellow, Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me. Together, we will examine how political advertising on Facebook is being targeted to Canadians during the upcoming federal election.

Between the 41st and 42nd Canadian federal elections, the proportion of spending by the main political parties on advertising beyond traditional television and radio grew from approximately 15% to 25%. Evidence from more recent provincial elections indicates that the shift toward targeted digital advertising has only accelerated, as has Canadians’ use of social media platforms as a primary news source.

According to our recent Rebuilding the Public Square report, Facebook is the dominant social media platform in Canada, with more than 7 in 10 Canadian adults using the platform and approximately two-thirds of those checking it at least daily. With the withdrawal of Google from the political advertising market in response to new Canadian regulatory requirements for an ad registry, Facebook is likely to serve as the primary advertising platform in the upcoming 43rd federal election. Yet relatively little research or knowledge mobilization has been conducted to date on this dramatic shift in our democratic process.

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The project aims to recruit approximately 2,000 Canadians to voluntarily download the Who Targets Me browser extension. The extension anonymously collects paid political advertisements from participants’ Facebook news feeds, and will be linked with an anonymous participant profile (age, gender, geography, ethnicity, education, income, religion, political ideology, political party ID, and political leader evaluations).

The data collected will be aggregated on a regular basis through the election and reports will be made available to the public and media. The data will also be used 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 as help to evaluate the effectiveness of Canada’s new political advertising regulations and Facebook’s response.

As part of its mission, the Ryerson Leadership Lab brings Visiting Global Fellows working at the intersection of technology and democracy to Canada. Its latest Visiting Global Fellow in September 2019, Sam Jeffers, is the co-founder of Who Targets Me, currently available in over 30 languages and installed by over 20,000 users in more than 80 countries. 

Partnering on this project is Vox Pop Labs, which builds innovative technologies that foster democratic participation, including CBC’s Vote Compass, and statistical models that allow the transformation of their survey data from anecdotal insights into representative statements about the public. Its CEO, Clifton van der Lindon, is an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University.

The Ryerson Leadership Lab will be officially launching the project on Friday, September 13th and will be joined by experts, civic leaders and community members to better understand how we can create transparency within our government and political system. 

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This partnership is made possible by the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge, spearheaded by Taylor Owen of the Max Bell School of Public Policy and Elizabeth Dubois, Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Public Policy Forum Fellow.