Comment: NZ vulnerable to dark digital campaign

The days when most election advertising was aired in the open are over. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

COMMENT: New Zealand’s electoral spending laws and oversight are out of date and vulnerable to tactics like those used by Cambridge Analytica in the US and UK.

London was a curious place in the months leading up to the European Union referendum. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the coursing spirit of the extroverted, swinging, tolerant capital atrophied and was replaced by a fearful, pessimistic xenophobia.

But however unusual London became, the online world of Facebook was even stranger. Knowing that I was a Commonwealth citizen resident in the UK and therefore entitled to vote, I received a slew of targeted political ads imploring me to swing one way or another. 

The ads were micro-targeted to an absurd degree. One afternoon, I opened up my Facebook to find a Suzy Cato meme, playing on her famous “Me and You” theme song. I clicked on the post and was taken to a page with a seemingly endless feed of memes playing on pop culture references from commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. 

More curious was how difficult it was to locate the New Zealand-focused ad that had brought me there in the first place. Once I was on the site’s homepage, the ad became much more difficult to find. 

None of this is illegal of course. In the eyes of the law, Facebook is just another platform, no different to television, newspapers or any of the other ways election ads can be delivered. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, questions are rightly being asked about whether Facebook is suitable platform for election advertising. 

The most serious revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of data published The Observer and The New York Times constitute a breach of Facebook’s terms and conditions around data sharing, but there is a growing awareness that the problem is bigger.

Even when parties play by the rules, the very fabric of Facebook poses a problem to how we conduct an election. New Zealand’s outdated electoral advertising laws mean the problem is supercharged here. 

Historically, election advertisements are generally quite public: ads in newspapers, on television and billboards. These things stick around. Television ads are recorded and archived, newspapers go to tens of thousands of homes and libraries, billboards stay up for weeks. Ad campaigns become public talking points. National’s infamous Iwi/Kiwi billboards became a central feature of the 2005 campaign. 

Offline campaigns are difficult to game. Spurious claims can be challenged and advertising in poor taste can be seen and declaimed by all. During the 2005 election, Green co-leader Rod Donald was able to take a smear flyer to National leader Don Brash and question him about it on television. 

But online advertising challenges this. It’s impossible to have an effective public debate when each participant is fed different information. Worse still, posts can be deleted, amended, or suppressed making it nearly impossible to tell who is being targeted with what information.

In the United States, the Trump campaign used so-called ‘dark posts’ which can only be seen by people who the campaign has targeted, not the general public. The Trump campaign targeted black voters with ads highlighting Hillary Clinton’s support of a racist crimes bill in the 1990s. The intention was to undermine confidence in Clinton amongst black voters. The Trump campaign knew black voters were unlikely to turn out for Trump, but they campaigned hard to prevent them from turning out for Clinton. 

But many of these posts were visible only to those the campaign had targeted. They were not available for wider debate and potential rebuttal. As Trump campaign staffer Brad Parscale told Bloomberg “only the people we want to see it, see it”. 

Although there is no suggestion of anything quite so malicious in New Zealand, our electoral laws make us vulnerable. 

There is no requirement on parties to archive their campaign ads. This isn’t an issue when an ad goes out to millions of viewers on television or hundreds of thousands of readers in a newspaper, but a spurious advertisement targeted at a small number of voters could fly under the radar unchecked and unchallenged. 

In New Zealand election advertisements must have a promotor statement with the name and address of the promotor on it, but attribution is not the problem. The Trump campaign’s ‘dark posts’ also carried authorisation from the campaign. The problem was no one else could see them outside of their direct targets. 

Both National and Labour said they used targeting to reach relevant voters. But a National party spokesperson said this was similar to using demographic targeting for deciding when to run television ads. 

There’s an element of truth to that. Neal Curtis, the head of Media and Communication at Auckland University told me this should be seen in the wider context of how campaigns have always targeted individuals with data. Politicians have always door-knocked had conducted at least part of their campaign away from the prying public eye.

But does the astounding accuracy and unmatchable scale of Facebook advertising mean this kind of campaigning has reached a tipping point. As British academic A. C. Grayling told me earlier in the year, “propaganda and lies and deception has always excited, but now it’s on the back of a jet fighter”.

There should at the very least be some form of public archive where all election advertisements could be scrutinised and debated. 

This should be a priority for parties as more and more of the election advertising spend ends up on Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Google). In 2017, the Labour Party spent $280, 223 on Facebook ads, an amount only exceeded by television advertising. It also spent $195,199 with Google. 

This compares with $233, 912 spent on newspaper advertising, but this doesn’t include ads taken out in local papers by individual candidates.

Although there are no accusations of any wrongdoing on Labour’s part, it is unfathomable that what now constitutes one of the most important campaign battlegrounds is subject to so little oversight.

Labour party general secretary Andrew Kirton told me that Labour did not post all of its ads on the main Facebook feed as not every ad would be relevant to every viewer.

“I don't think our Facebook followers in Whangarei really wanted to see adverts about the upcoming rally Jacinda was having in Christchurch,” he said. 

But all of the party’s videos were available on the Youtube channel. 

Kirton was open to the idea of creating an archive of campaign ads on Facebook. A National party spokesperson said it keeps full records but a mandatory requirement to publish all advertisements would have to keep in mind that political parties are primarily volunteer organisations with limited resource.

Taxpayers already fund some of this potentially dark advertising. 

As of 2017, parties have been allowed to use their taxpayer-funded broadcast allocation for online advertisements. Labour spent $105,586 of its broadcast allocation on Facebook advertising, but the party is under no obligation to archive the ads this money paid for. 

An ironic digression: Labour’s broadcasting allocation was paid to Facebook Ireland Limited, a subsidiary of the company that takes advantage of Ireland’s low corporate tax rates. Sending taxpayer money to a low-tax jurisdiction strikes an awkward note for the Government as it tries to pass a bill limiting the extent tech companies can exploit the tax code to pay artificially low taxes.

National spent less on digital advertising, but still a lot. It spent $77,971 on Facebook, $49, 676 with Google on top of the $202, 869.32 it spent with advertising firm Rainmakers on ‘online advertising’. 

It’s hardly surprising we are so poorly equipped to handle elections in the digital age. Just four elections ago, in 2008, National didn’t spend a penny on social media advertising, whilst Labour spent a mere $3393 on Facebook ads and $4510 with Google. These two sums were dwarfed by the $11,250 sum it paid for a page on the now-defunct social media site, Bebo — a sign of the times.