Will “dark ads” on Facebook really swing the 2017 general election?

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, it has been widely understood that Facebook swayed the outcome of both the United States presidential election and the EU Referendum. Micro-targeted advertising on the site – which is used by political parties to serve highly specific adverts to highly specific groups – has revolutionised politics as we know it.

During the 2015 election, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook advertising, and this year, Labour plan to spend almost the same. Like broadsheets, billboards, and broadcasts before them, Facebook adverts are a powerful tool for spreading a message to the masses. Unlike broadsheets, billboards, and broadcasts, however, Facebook advertising is at present almost entirely unregulated, leading to wide speculation about what exactly is going on.

“It’s difficult to work out exactly what messages and facts campaigns and political parties are using to gain support,” says Louis Knight-Webb, a founder at “Who Targets Me”, a new plug-in that tracks how targeted adverts end up in your feed. Knight-Webb explains that Vote Leave claim to have spent 98 per cent of their advertising budget on digital adverts, but only those targeted can see the ads and therefore know where the money went. “It’s clear that more research needs to be done.”

Who Targets Me hopes to shed light on who political parties are targeting and how. Amid multiple attention-grabbing headlines about the dangers of Facebook micro-targeting, The Guardian are asking their readers to submit examples of political adverts they see on Facebook, in order to better understand the phenomenon. In the meantime, grand claims are surfacing about the power of the social network and what are now known as “dark ads”.

“You can say to Facebook, I would like to make sure that I can micro-target that fisherman in certain parts of the UK so that they are specifically hearing that if you vote to leave that you will be able to change the way that the regulations are set for the fishing industry,” Gerry Gunster, a political campaigner at Leave.EU, told BBC Panorama on Monday night. The statement has now been extensively quoted in the media as proof of Facebook’s sinister micro-targeting and its role in securing Brexit.

Anyone who as ever used Facebook Ads Manager – the site’s service for creating and targeting adverts – knows that you can choose very specific, custom audiences for your posts. You can target people by location, age, gender, languages, job titles, and their interests. The first five are pretty fool proof – we tell Facebook all of this personal information willingly – the last relies on which Facebook pages you’ve “Liked”.

Only 48,296 people worldwide have bothered to list “Fisherman” as their job title on Facebook, and an additional 17,245,300 people have “expressed an interest in or like Pages related to Fisherman”. If I try to target an advert to both of these groups in, for…

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