Scroll through your Facebook feed and you’ll see it’s the Wild West for political advertisers on Facebook, communication experts say. As Alberta heads to the polls on April 16, political parties and third-party advertisers are corralling votes through mobile apps and online advertising.
All of this comes as online advertisers and platforms face increasing scrutiny from federal regulators concerned with interference that could ultimately influence election results.
Targeted Facebook Ads
Facebook ads are excellent for reaching audiences advertisers want to connect with. But, it’s the ability to target ads at specific demographics that has some experts, like analyst Sara Bannerman, worried.
“What’s concerning to me is the lack of transparency. That we really don’t have a tool for monitoring what kind of advertising is out there,” says Bannerman, the Research Chair in Communication Policy and Governance at McMaster University.
Bill C-76, introduced by the federal government last December, is attempting to force online platforms to maintain a sharable database of political advertisements.
Google Canada has already decided they won’t be hosting political ads for the next Federal Election due to that requirement. In the U.S., U.K., India, and Brazil, Facebook maintains ad libraries that track who purchases political ads, how much they paid, and how the ads performed.
Facebook promises to launch a Canadian ad archive in June, before the next federal election, but after Alberta’s provincial election.
Under Alberta law, political advertisers only need to disclose their expenses to Elections Alberta. However, Bannerman insists more information, including how organizations are aiming particular messages to certain groups and which groups are being targeted with specific ads, should be shared with the public.
“If ads are only seen by the people who [are meant to] see them, then we’re not even participating in the same conversation.”
Mobile apps are one of the newer tools being made available by political parties. Apps can be used to communicate directly with supporters, gather data, and organize campaigns.
Peter Ryan, public relations professor at Mount Royal University, says Albertans should be concerned about how easily these apps collect users’ private information.
“If they’re downloading a partisan app, we don’t know what information is getting collected by that party … we don’t know how [the data] is being used, and what effect it will have on the election.”
Ryan added there is also no way of knowing what security is in place in the event of a hack.
So far, the Alberta NDP’s app, Forward, is the only one available within the Google Play and Apple app stores.
The app requests biographical information such as name, constituency, phone number, and email.
However, as of March 14, the app wasn’t completely accessible to the public, as users who provided basic information, and granted notification and text message permissions were never sent the invitation code needed to access any in-app content.
While political parties will be doing their share of advertising online, they’re not the only ones with a stake in this election.
Third-party advertisers and other groups not directly linked to political parties have the capacity and legal ability to advertise as well, which Ryan says is going to show us a lot about their role in our politics.
“We will learn which political parties will be able to leverage the third-party space to effectively amplify their messages to strategically frame their opposition and drive voters to the polls to support their election policies.”
While these third parties can advertise, they are required by law to register with Elections Alberta but can spend no more than $150,000 on advertising.
The Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and political-action organizations like Shaping Alberta’s Future are three examples of groups registered as third-party political advertisers with Elections Alberta.
While registered third parties will have their spending monitored by the province, Ryan raises the issues of groups who may not be receiving or spending any money at all, but still exerting great influence.
“If you aren’t receiving any money you can still have a [Facebook] group and post away,” says Ryan.
“A huge group right now is the Yellow Vest movement online, over 100,000 people are following it. That could influence a provincial election.”
Yellow Vests Canada identifies itself as a group that supports the building of pipelines and opposes carbon taxes, globalists and ‘treason’ committed by Canadian politicians. The group’s Facebook page is filled with posts by members sharing from sources such as Debate Post which makes unsubstantiated claims, often about immigration or Prime Minister Trudeau.
Ryan encourages voters to be critical of posts they see online and attempt to verify what they see with trusted media outlets and official government sources, like Elections Alberta.
“If it’s not the mainstream media reporting or circulating information to you, I would say consumers beware of that information.”
- By Brian Wells