Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to ask Gov. Gen. Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament and issue the writs today, triggering the official launch of Canada’s 43 federal election campaign, which, in turn, will unleash an avalanche of political ads spending offline and online.
In recent years political advertising online via social media platforms such as Facebook have taken on a new degree of importance as more and more Canadians are spending their time online. For example, today 94% of Canadian adults who use the Internet have at least one social media account. This change in how and where people spend their time and attention has given rise to a new practice called microtargeting. Microtargeting is a marketing strategy that relies on users’ demographic and social media data — the things we like on social media, who we are friends with, businesses that we have frequented, etc. — to identify and segment people into smaller groups and is often used to influence people’s choices or actions. It has dramatically changed how political campaigns around the world are doing politics.
One of the promises of microtargeting is that it can deliver personalized content and ads that are relevant to people on an individualized basis. However, in elections, this technology has a dark side. Microtargeting can be used to deliver false, misleading or biased information to influence people’s vote. In recent years, political parties and candidates have used these techniques with some degree of success to reach and woo critical voters; all for a fraction of the cost of more traditional, door-to-door canvassing. But as more political advertising and outreach efforts move online, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the public and journalists to see who is being targeted by the parties and with what messages.
Facebook Canadian Political Ads Dashboard
The latest tool in the Social Media Lab’s Election 43 (#ELXN43) Transparency Initiative is our Facebook Canadian Political Ads Dashboard, designed to address this issue by tracking political advertising on Facebook in Canada and highlighting information about political advertisers, the ads they are running on Facebook and how much they are paying for it.
The dashboard uses data from Facebook’s Ads Library API and its Ads Library Web Interface (a searchable database of all advertisements currently running on Facebook, created in response to Bill C-76). The Lab’s Facebook Ads dashboard currently tracks active advertisers on a daily basis and provides summary statistics in a number of different ways, including:
- A list of the Most Active Political Advertisers in Canada, ranked by the total number of ads they are running, broken down into various price ranges,
- A list of the Top 10 Most Active Facebook Pages running political ads in Canada, how much money they have spent and the number of impressions their ads have garnered.
This data can be used to identify important trends in how political parties or third-party organizations spend ad dollars on Facebook. For example, using the dashboard, we can see that between August 27th to September 10th some advertisers were big spenders, but they spent a little at a time. Overwhelmingly, the majority of advertisers are buying a lot of ad space in the $100 or less price range on Facebook.
Top 10 Advertisers
The top 10 advertisers buying ads in the $100 or less range are non-profits, unions, charities, and industry associations. The Liberal Party of Canada is at the top of the list with 1,453 ads, while the Conservation Council of New Brunswick is close behind with 892. The council has ramped up its spending in recent days, buying more than 500 ads since September 5.
Others in the top 10 include the United Steelworkers Union, Plan International Canada, Dying with Dignity Canada, Tommy Gun’s Original Barbershop, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, Randy Boissonnault, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and North99.
Only a handful of advertisers bought single ads in the $10,000+ range , including TD Bank, Unilever, Ethical Bean Coffee, CUPE Alberta, Conservative Party of Canada, Canada’s NDP, Proud To Be Canadian, as well as Hellmanns (a mayonnaise brand owned by Unilever).
Based on our examination of the Facebook Ads Library, some non-political ads are being pulled into the Facebook archive of ads. This is because the archive doesn’t only include political ads, it also includes ads covering nationally important social and environmental issues. For example, Tommy Gun’s Barbershop bought 304 ads between August 27th to September 10th promoting an apolitical motivational podcast but yet their ads have been included by Facebook into the archive. This represents one challenge when working with Facebook’s political ad database, which combines ads for elections, politics and social issues together.
Some third-party advertisers are using their ads to support and criticize political parties and politicians. The Facebook database shows one of the biggest third-party spenders: the United Steelworkers Union that highlights the NDP in its ads. From August 27th to September 10th, the official NDP itself only bought 40 ads, with four that cost less than $100 each. However, in that same period, the United Steelworkers Union bought 369 ads for less than $100 each and 49 ads for between $100 and $5,000 supporting the NDP and its leader Jagmeet Singh.
Progressive advocacy group North99, which bought 208 ads for less than $100 each, used its advertisements to criticize Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, as well as other conservative politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Meanwhile, the Canada Growth Council, which bought 48 ads for less than $100 each and 28 ads for more than $100 each, targeted Trudeau and Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi in its ads. One shows a picture of Sohi talking on the phone, with the words “Hello, Prime Minister? Yes, your plan to destroy Alberta is going very well!”
For now, the parties are using their ads to either focus on their leaders, or attack their main rivals. Liberal Party ads highlighted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the party’s record in government. Other ads targeted the Conservative Party, even invoking former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, suggesting a vote for the Conservative party is a return to the policies of the old Harper government.
The Conservative Party, on the other hand, focused on leader Andrew Scheer in ads launched in July. Since then most ads have either targeted Trudeau or focused on Scheer and individual Conservative candidates.
It’s possible the opposition parties are saving their advertising dollars for after the election is called and we expect ad spending by parties, and third-party groups, will increase exponentially in the days to come.
As election day nears, we will add more data and charts to the Facebook ad dashboard and continue to provide frequent updates from the PoliDashboard with insights, highlights anything that looks suspicious. Stay tuned.
By Philip Mai, Donald Patterson and Anatoliy Gruzd