You are currently viewing We tracked election ad spend for 4,000 Facebook pages.  Here’s what they’re posting – and why cybersecurity is the biggest concern

We tracked election ad spend for 4,000 Facebook pages. Here’s what they’re posting – and why cybersecurity is the biggest concern

Have you noticed your Facebook and Instagram feed filling up with political ads lately?

The social media strategies of many parties and candidates aim to bypass mainstream media to speak directly to voters, but they are often not as sophisticated as assumed.

As part of a team studying digital campaigning, we tracked what parties and candidates are doing with their ad spend on Facebook and Instagram during the election campaign.

Using ads collected from the Facebook Ad Library API (containing sponsored posts declared by the advertiser as policies), we track ad spend for nearly 4,000 pages. We collect new data every six hours.

Halfway through the election campaign, some clear themes are emerging in the way parties and candidates are campaigning online.



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Big spending by ‘teals’ and Labor – and political fragmentation

The first is the really big expenses of the “teal” freelancers. Historically, many successful federal independents (such as Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott or Cathy McGowan) have come from the regions.

Labor outspends the Coalition on Facebook ads so far.
UQ Election Ads Data Dashboard

But they rarely had the resources to execute a campaign of the magnitude we see from inner-city “teals” like Monique Ryan (running in the Kooyong seat against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg).

Some spend AU$4,000 to AU$5,000 a week on Facebook and Instagram ads. It’s huge. Very few major party candidates would normally spend this amount. Frydenberg does this to try to retain his seat.

The second theme that emerges is that, so far, the Labor Party is spending more than the Coalition. It is a product of Labour’s post-2019 election review, which was damning for its digital campaign and emphasized a digital first strategy.

Third, we see real diversity in spending across a range of parties and candidates – Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania, Rex Patrick in South Australia, the Liberal Democrats and the United Australia Party in Queensland, for example.

This reflects the wider fragmentation of the political landscape in Australia. Federal elections in Australia are increasingly complex and multidimensional, online campaigning is indicative of this trajectory.

Expenses at the Kooyong and Wentworth headquarters were high.
UQ Election Ads Data Dashboard

What are candidates and parties posting about?

In the downtown seats where teal independents show up, the number one issue overwhelmingly is climate change. But ‘environment’ or ‘climate’ is not one of the key terms we found for major parties across Australia. Instead, jobs, health insurance and health are more important.

“Lies” is one of the most frequent terms in publications.
UQ Election Ads Data Dashboard

For those in outlying metropolitan and regional areas, the data suggests that the cost of living is the main issue that parties have identified as determining their vote.

An advert from the Liberal Party of Australia’s Facebook page.
Liberal Party of Australia Facebook page

The negative campaign also appears. One of the main terms appearing in the advertisements of the major parties is “lie”.

Talk about “microtargeting” with a grain of salt

While there is always talk of fine and sophisticated micro-targeting strategies, there are good reasons to be wary of such claims.

There is a perception that we live in this incredible digital age where every post is tailored to our interests or personalities. But the reality is quite different.

Lying is a common theme in many digital advertisements.
The Australian Labor Party’s Facebook page.

In fact, a large portion of digital campaigns are not targeted at all. Clive Palmer’s campaign is an extreme example of this, “carpet bombarding” the electorate with “freedom” messages. (A reasonable rebuttal might be: can I be free not to receive these messages?)

The reality is that most online political advertising is little more than what I describe in my recent book as a form of “targeted broadcasting,” where targeting is based on basic segmentation of voters into demographic or geographic groups. .

While many of the techniques we see in Australian election campaigns have been used overseas, particularly in the US and UK, our electoral system and electoral rules are different; a mixed electoral system and compulsory voting changes the dynamic enormously.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the primary aim is to “get the vote out” rather than to persuade voters. But evidence suggests that the effects of digital campaigns on mobilization are limited. For persuasion, it is even less.

Most parties also lack the resources to engage in highly differentiated and targeted campaign activities.

In research I recently completed with colleagues from six advanced democracies, we showed that most campaigning builds on pre-existing techniques and is far less sophisticated than is often assumed.

Digital campaigning is important because voters are online. It educates, it informs, it animates the conversation and it can have effects on social cohesion.

But the idea that digital campaigning is the canary in the coal mine of Australian election manipulation is hyperbole.

Data privacy is the broadest concern

Data privacy and cybersecurity are two important aspects of digital campaigns that we should be concerned about.

Australia is one of the few advanced democracies where political parties are completely exempt from privacy legislation.

They are able to acquire all sorts of data about you, from the Australian Election Commission, data they collect when talking to voters, and digital tracking data.

Should we be comfortable with parties collecting this information about us, especially when much of it offers only limited campaigning or educational value to the parties?

Privacy concerns are significant, but so is the broader risk of domestic or foreign actors seeking to acquire this data to sow discord.

Since 2016, political parties in countries like Australia, the UK, the US, Germany, Italy and Canada have been the target of cybersecurity attacks. Many see political parties as the weak link in the electoral security of democracy.

This represents a wider risk for all of us.

It’s important for us to track what parties and candidates are doing online during a campaign.

But we also need to identify where the real vulnerabilities are, because online threats will only increase.



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