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Anna Connell: Battle lines drawn in race for election clicks

It's worth watching what forces are at play in influencing our democracy. National’s new ad campaign for one might be interested in you in ways you are not even aware of, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell. 

Last weekend the National Party launched its new slogan, ‘Our bottom line is you’. 10 years ago, you’d critique and analyse that purely on its merits as a strapline. Something to be splashed across billboards and TV ads. You’d probably argue the toss on the semantics, on what it symbolises ideologically or whether it was specifically designed to direct attention away from Simon Bridges. All would be valid arguments. In 2019 however, one of the most important considerations has to be whether it has the capacity to act as a platform from which to launch hundreds of Facebook ads. On that front, it’s quite powerful.

Social media is all about expressions of individuality. You like this, you share that. You use it as a way to show the world what you care about and what you want to be seen to be caring about. In the process of doing so, you also hand over vast amounts of information that can be used by advertisers to target ads specifically at you. Facebook is the master of collecting this and has parlayed it into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Used in a perfunctory way, Facebook ads are a cost-effective form of broadcast advertising where you’re more likely to reach people who might be interested in what you have to say than if you were using blanket broadcast techniques like television advertising.

Used in conjunction with a platform that appeals to self-interest like National’s does, Facebook ads work to elicit individual responses, harvest data and teach the machine what is working and what’s not. ‘Our bottom line is you’ seems to be tailor made for this purpose. It can be used across a broad range of issues and instantly positions the individual and what they think at the centre of ad mechanism – vote, take the survey, sign the petition. Your responses can then be analysed, the content refined and cycled back out as more ads. Facebook ads can be cheap to make and fast to deploy.

One of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about Facebook is that there isn’t a Facebook, there are Facebooks. Every single one of us has a completely different feed and even though its vaunted as a collective experience, it is an entirely individual one. It’s a misunderstanding that sees many appealing to the greater good as a way to elicit responses on social media. More often than not, even the most collectively minded people will respond to an ad, post or tweet from an entirely individual point of view.

The National Party are currently running a range of ads attacking Labour’s so-called ‘Car Tax’. These ads aren’t visible on the page – they’re running dark, something I’ve written about before Fortunately, to the benefit of commentators like me, the rest of the media and probably democracy, all ads run by any page on Facebook are able to be seen. 

National’s bottom line will be you in more ways than one. Ways you might not have been aware of. Ways that suggest they might want to know what you think but where you click will be far more valuable to them.

You can view any ads from any page by going to that page and clicking on the page ‘Page Transparency’ box which is on the right-hand side of the page on desktop and just underneath the ‘About’ section on mobile. You can see National’s here.

Labour aren’t currently running any ads, the Greens have one going, as do NZ First. 

The National Party ‘Car Tax’ ads all look quite similar – same messaging and same link through to the stopthecartax.nz website. The key difference is the type of car that features in each ad. My guess is that they’re using interest targeting to show the ads featuring the different models of cars to people who’ve done things on Facebook to suggest they’re interested in those models. Liked Toyota’s page? You’ll probably see the ads featuring a Toyota. Instead of running just one ad and trying to tap into a principled objection to the ‘car tax’, they’re appealing to the individual concerns and loyalties we have about the cars we might drive. I might not broadly disagree with the car tax but I might feel personally attacked by it if I saw it related to a car I might buy or own one day.

If you click on the ads, you can sign a petition on the stopthecartax.nz website. What impact or use this petition will have is highly debatable. Its primary purpose appears to be to harvest email addresses. You can’t sign the ‘petition’ without handing yours over. And sure, there’s the usual disclaimer about them using it to contact you but it’s also likely they’ll use it to create what's called a ‘custom audience’ on Facebook. This feature allows you to load customer data like email addresses, mobile phone numbers and postcodes into Facebook, which then anonymises that data and matches it to unique Facebook IDs. This then creates an audience that can be used for more ads.

There is also Google Tag Manager code sitting on that site that can track any number of actions taken by you. Visit the site but don’t sign the petition? They know that and may keep following you around the internet with these ads using a tactic known as re-marketing. 

In the run up to the 2020 election, the social media battle ground will be less visible to our naked eyes. This will be the election where we see the full importation of tactics used during the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US election and more recently, across the ditch during the Australian federal election. The Kiwis who ran social media for the Liberals in Australia are former Young Nats.

Labour are in a tricky position on this one. While they haven’t ruled out or stopped using Facebook ads, they have taken a stance which might be described as anti-Facebook. They’ve already had plenty of questions about whether it’s hypocritical to continue to spend money with them following the Christchurch massacre. 

Observation of social media use during elections in New Zealand has largely focused on what’s been publicly visible. Politicians flocking to Twitter and Facebook. Page likes. Slick and not so slick videos. Terrible memes that have no business being produced let alone published. In 2017, more people started noting the use of Facebook ads, but I don’t think we saw anything as sophisticated as a campaign platform married perfectly to the full technical capability of the Facebook advertising machine. That is what ‘Our bottom line is you’ has the potential to be.

It’s worth watching and it’s worth developing greater awareness and knowledge of what forces are influencing our democracy. The use of Facebook has been touted as one of defining success factors in Leave, Trump and Scott Morrison campaigns. National’s bottom line will be you in more ways than one. Ways you might not have been aware of. Ways that suggest they might want to know what you think but where you click will be far more valuable to them.

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