So-called ‘dark ads’ – targeting individuals online with uniquely tailored messages – have been under the spotlight during the latest US and UK election campaigns. 

According to some sources, the Trump campaign hiring Cambridge Analytica, a strategic communications agency, was one of the driving forces behind the US Election results, with a hefty £5m investment going towards successful targeting of key swing voters online. During last year’s Referendum, the Vote Leave campaign worked with a similar company which specialises in profiling Facebook users and serving individually-targeted advertising. 

Despite the use of ‘dark ads’ being called out as an ‘unregulated practice’, and concerns over spending limits, it appears that the parties are playing by the rules; even the ominously named Who Targets Me  – a service which sends users regular updates on how they are being targeted by political parties – acknowledges this. 

Just like all other advertisers, political parties are now able to understand voters and target them with highly-targeted personal messages. There’s also the opportunity for parties to present different users with different, and even contradictory, messages – depending on, say, their likely voting intention or that of their local constituency. 
According to data collected so far, over 60 different political ads have been used during this election campaign. But political parties are, largely, using social media in much the same way other channels are being used; to develop a shared narrative, rather than sending fundamentally different messages to different people. The Conservatives have homed in on Corbyn as their line of attack, whereas Labour are promoting their policies, and largely targeting a younger audience, encouraging them to register their vote.

Political parties are wary of serving different messages because they understand that social media is, inherently, sharable. Despite being called ‘dark ads’, social doesn’t always remain ‘dark’ – for political parties in particular, they are just a screenshot away from their reputation being lost, and even breaking campaigning regulations. Fake news websites might get away with falsehoods, but scandal stays with a political party. 

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