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15th ECPR General Conference, University of Innsbruck

Dark Ads & Micro-Targeting versus Pro-Transparency Activism: Normalisation versus Equalisation in the Context of Political 'Dark' Advertising in the UK GE2017, UK EU Referendum, and the 2016 US Presidential Election

Liam McLoughlin
University of Salford
Stephen Ward
University of Salford
Liam McLoughlin
University of Salford

A recurring theme of internet politics and campaigns questions the assumption that the impact of technology somehow alters the balance of power on the political spectrum – especially in times of elections and national campaigns. The debate is written from two key theoretical perspectives: that the internet gives smaller political organisations the tools to compete with larger more established entities (equalisation), or that dominant political entities have used online tools to entrench their pre-existing positions (normalisation). These two perspectives are often applied to the use of internet technologies to political parties and candidates in elections (see Gibson & McAllister, 2015; Southern, 2015; Lev-On & Haleva-Amir, 2016; Yang & Kim, 2017). This paper seeks to extend this argument into a new context. Rather than testing for how this debate impacts parties, instead we seek to understand in what ways technology can be said help, or hinder, the activities of non-party non-partisan activists during periods of national election or referenda. To answer this, we apply a case study analysis in the context of activists attempts to counter the growing use of so called ‘dark ads’ by political parties.

Experiences from the last two General Elections, the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom, and the US Presidential Election has called into question the use of ‘dark ads’ or ‘dark posts’ by political parties and campaign organisations (Mullen, 2016). Primarily displayed through social media, these adverts make use of highly detailed voter data to tailor messages to specific audiences – leaving non-targeted individuals unaware of their existence. The resulting lack of transparency of these adverts have left many concerned over a multitude of potentially negative impacts for democracy. With the issues highlighted ranging from questions over the accuracy of the messages displayed, to the lack of regulatory oversight, data privacy issues, underhanded campaign tactics, and the use of dark ads to hide the original advert poster - along with other important information such as donor information (Chand, 2017; Worrall, 2018). The alarm about this type of campaign activity was not limited to domestic advertisers. There was noticeably uproar following revelations that up to $100,000 worth of dark adverts during the US 2016 Presidential election was traced back to Russian information operations intended to sway the result of the election (Weedon, Nunland & Stamos, 2017; Leonning, Hamburger & Helderman, Sept 6, 2017). This is all in the context of a time of vast increases of campaign funds being spent on social media (Tambini et al, 2017). Indeed, the Vote Leave campaign director was quoted saying that most of their ad spend during the EU referendum was spent online (Cummings, Oct 29, 2016).

This increase has highlighted the lack of preparedness by election regulators, and journalists to effectively monitor this type of online campaign activity. Many states have been hampered by election regulations unprepared for the advent of political micro-targeting (Bodó, Helberger, & Vreese, 2017). While significant technological hurdles have hampered the ability of states and journalists alike to be effective watchdogs (Karpf, 2013). Allowing some to continue un-democratic campaign practices that might not be disclosed until the election has long since finished (Chand, 2017: Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, March 17, 2018). However, there has been a noticeable backlash against the lack of transparency of dark adverts. Noticeable citizen-led operations have been set up, such as WhoTargetsMe, ProRepublica’s advert collector, The Alliance for Securing Democracy, and These organisations attempt to collect information on the use of dark ads for political purposes with the intention of exposing the actors distributing dark adverts and improve the transparency of campaigns during national campaigns of elections by publishing dark adverts to the public.
In this context, this paper seeks to better understand to what extent these activist groups are capable of countering campaign related dark advertising on social media. Through a series of case studies and interview data with members of anti-dark advertising operations, this paper will question the theoretical assumptions of the normalisation and equalisation hypothesises in the backdrop of activist activity against political parties
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