Today’s Sun carries an interesting story about the political battle online, specifically on Facebook. In the week since Boris Johnson won the leadership race, the Conservative Party has run over 1,600 different iterations of Facebook adverts, at a cost of over £13,000.
Good. There is no off-season from campaigning, no downtime or rest period, and major news moments are crucial opportunities to reach and engage voters. The result of the leadership election was the most-noticed news story for 81 per cent of voters last week, which is a staggeringly high proportion, well above the number who noticed Theresa May’s victory in 2016. As much as I (and you, given you’re here on ConservativeHome) find politics extremely interesting and very engaging, political events that cut through to a big majority of the population are extremely rare, and so a political party would be stupid not to make the most of it.
The adverts are interpreted by the Sun as CCHQ “gear[ing] up for a possible election”. That’s undoubtedly true, and I still expect an election sooner rather than later, but the act of online advertising, and data-gathering through a survey about voters’ priorities which the adverts link to, is not in itself a sign that an election is just around the corner. Remember, in the 2017 election the Tory campaign suffered badly from outdated and partial data, having neglected to continue the years-long process of data-gathering which preceded 2015. Frankly, whether there’s an election planned for September of this year or May 2022, the Party ought to be testing messages, contacting voters, and collecting information for detailed analysis in this way.
Reporting on these tactics always comes, inevitably, with a nudge-nudge, raised eyebrow air of suspicion. Isn’t online, micro-targeted advertising all a black magic tool to brainwash voters, probably for the Russians, after all.
Well, not really. As Hugo Rifkind in the Times today recognises, first the actual process of micro-targeting is pretty dull in its pursuit of tiny variations of wording and presentation across hundreds of little sub-sets of voters, and second “everybody is at it”, because it’s a major and growing political battleground by virtue of the fact political campaigns must follow voters to where they choose to spend their time.
As I wrote over a year ago, this whole field of online campaigning suffers from a high degree of ignorance among politicians, reporters and commentators. Too many either believe it’s a black box containing wondrous tricks that you can just turn on and whizz-bang there’s an effective campaign (Theresa May, 2017) or that it’s a black box containing wondrous tricks that other people turn on and whizz-bang there’s a devious scheme to overturn democracy (Carol Cadwalladr, ever since 2016).
It’s neither, and until both fantasies are deflated we won’t have a truly grown-up conversation about its genuine opportunities and risks. In the meantime, campaigns will keep on doing it.