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Political ads on Facebook growing 'exponentially' in Canadian campaigns, experts say

Political ads on Facebook growing 'exponentially' in Canadian campaigns, experts say
From CBC - April 17, 2018

As millions of Canadians cast ballots in pivotal provincial elections this year, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to gauge how much they were influenced by online campaign ads tailored to their specific interests and opinions.

Political parties and candidates are increasingly relying on Facebook in particular to communicate their sales pitches to voters, and election observers are concerned about the lack of transparency about who's behind ads.

With its massive trove of data, the social media platform allows campaigns to microtarget to different groups of voters based on factors such as age, gender, geographic location and political interests and attitudes.

It's why you might see an ad from a candidate about health care spending while your friend sees one from the same candidate about cutting taxes.

The tactic has been used by campaigns in Canada for several years, but what's changed is the level of sophistication in customizing ads to specific voters and the sheer volume of Facebook ads now being pumped out.

"It is accelerating almost exponentially," said Dennis Matthews, vice-president at political consultancy Enterprise Canada and a conservative strategist who ran advertising for the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2015 federal election.

"I think by the time we get to the next federal election campaign the parties will be spending more on digital ads than on TV ads likely for the first time."

Political advertising on the social media platform has come under increased scrutiny since the 2016 U.S. election, when it is widely believed the platform was used by Russian operatives to influence voter attitudes. Facebook has faced pressure to make it easier for users to understand who is targeting them with political messages and why.

Cost-effective for campaigns

Advertising on social media platforms will be key to reaching voters, particularly younger ones who tend to not read newspapers or have cable TV, and prefer podcasts to live radio.

Despite Facebook coming under fire for the Cambridge Analytica data breach, political strategists expect political advertising on the platform to keep growing.

"In terms of variety of messages, and issue-specific messages, I see the current and future platform for that as being primarily digital," said Kate Harrison, a senior consultant at political consulting firm Summa Strategies in Ottawa who has worked on digital strategy for Ontario provincial campaigns.

Harrison said Facebook advertising is extremely cost-effective, and campaigns love how specific they can be in tailoring their messages, and how they can test them out and tweak them if necessary.

"You can see what's being clicked on quickly or not at all," said Harrison. "They are cheap to develop, pretty cheap to post, and you get-real time data and insights on what messages are performing better than others."

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