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Politicians beckon for your attention from the dark

We’ll all be seeing more digital communications from our political parties in the coming months - but because of Facebook's dark advertisements, we may not all see the same thing writes Anna Connell

Much was made of the use of ‘dark ads’ on Facebook during the recent UK Election and Brexit referendum. The Conservatives ran attack ads against Jeremy Corbyn in a marginal constituency in Wales, outbidding and essentially drowning-out a campaign run by a group trying to get young people out to vote. 

For the benefit of the uninitiated, Facebook makes $26.8 billion each year from advertising, and “dark” ads are a commonly-used part of that mix. The're simply Facebook posts containing video, links, imagery or other types of content and forms. They look exactly like any other Facebook post but they aren’t visible on the advertiser's own Facebook page, and are set up using Facebook ad management tools.

Dark ads are particularly useful when you want to target a specific audience or A/B test ad creative to see what performs better. A lot of the posts you interact with every day are probably ‘dark’ ads, and you don't really have any way of knowing that’s what they are. 

Also known as unpublished page posts, dark ads sound a lot more nefarious than they really are. Facebook are perfectly open about dark ads and all the other kinds of advertising options they offer, but they do raise questions about the ways in which our votes can be influenced through tactics that go largely unseen. There was enough concern about them influencing the UK Election after the Brexit vote that a couple of people developed ‘Who targets me?’, an extension for Chrome browsers that would tell you who was targeting you with Facebook ads. 

Dark ads will be used by political parties in this year’s New Zealand election - in fact, they already are. I've seen a number from National on Instagram where ads have become much more common place since they became a default placement for all Facebook ads that get set-up. Unlike billboards and placards and being out on the hustings, a lot of digital marketing isn’t seen by people unless you're meant to see it - it is somewhat invisible and highly targeted. Highlighting its dangers, Richard MacManus wrote about micro-targeting for Newsroom earlier this year.

What we see on Facebook and what we receive in our inboxes is increasingly shaped by what we ourselves have given away.

It was the 2012 Barack Obama re-election campaign that really demonstrated the potential and power of many digital techniques and tactics that we see used in elections all over the world including ours. Teddy Goff was the key strategist behind the US President's campaign and was responsible for the programme of digital work that raised US$690 million and ran more than US$100 million in online ads which, at the time, was the largest such programme in political history.

For all Teddy’s success in 2012, he could probably only dream of a software platform like NationBuilder. NationBuilder is being used by National, Labour, the Greens, NZ First and the Māori Party. It’s “leadership software” developed in the US and Sean Parker, Napster co-founder and Facebook investor, is on the board. It’s been credited with giving the Trump and Brexit campaigns access to the kinds of digital tools that Goff probably had to build custom for the Obama campaign in 2012. It brings features from services like MailChimp, WordPress, and PayPal into one package offering anyone trying to mass-organise, run campaigns, or raise money, a single platform from which to organise events, send out email ’blasts’ and social media messages and keep a website up to date.

If you check the website of most of the parties listed above, you’ll see ‘Created with NationBuilder’ in the footer of each page. It is not a secret technology but it does give parties the ability to know and see more than most people realise. They can link public social media profiles to email addresses they have, tag supporter profiles, and send communications based on who they are.

NationBuilder makes it incredibly easy to email supporters or fools like me who signed up to receive emails from all the major political parties in April because I am a) undecided and b) really very committed to writing about this kind of thing.

National have sent me six emails; the Greens, seven; the Māori Party and NZ First three each; ACT one, and that was my sign-up confirmation; and Labour 22.

The rate at which Labour is firing out ‘blasts’ is out-stripping the others by 3:1.

I might be getting more or less than other people, it may depend on the data and information they have about me - or maybe they’re just trying to wear me down - but it’s making my inbox a more Andrew Little-filled place than it’s ever been. I’m not sure whether I feel less or more inclined to vote for Labour as a result. 

Maybe it only takes one right message amongst 94 wrong ones to land a voter, or maybe I’m a digital guinea pig and they’re testing messages. Whatever the reasons, we’ll all be seeing more of this kind of thing in the coming months - but we may not all see the same thing. What we see on Facebook and what we receive in our inboxes is increasingly shaped by what we ourselves have given away. Now is not a bad time to remember that when it comes to your digital data and platforms like Facebook, you are the product being sold.

As Pericles said: "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

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