Has Facebook turned into the most powerful election weapon?

Last year, the world was left reeling after two major political upsets. First Brexit, then Trump. Both votes went against the polls’ predictions, sending shockwaves around the globe. So, how did the analysts get it so wrong?

Well, according to BBC Panorama’s latest investigation, it all comes down to Facebook. The global social networking channel, which boasts over 1.94 billion active monthly users, is said to be completely changing the face of politics. Micro-targeted campaign messaging, fake news and a lack of regulation has allowed political campaigners to harness Facebook’s vast reach and persuade voters. With less than a month to go until the UK’s general election, we’re looking at whether a Facebook campaign is really the only election campaign worth having.

The ultimate trump card

Despite the critics, Facebook is resolute that it’s been instrumental in making politics accessible to a greater number of people. Encouraging more people to vote in the US presidential election than ever before, Facebook claims that it aided two million people to register to vote last year. Which, of course, is great for politics.

What’s more, Facebook is an unparalleled tool for campaigners. Micro-targeted messaging allows campaigners to get the right messages in front of the right people. Enabling them to filter their ads by location, demographics, interests and behaviours, campaigners can pay for their messages to be presented to almost exactly who they want. They’ll even get instant feedback on precisely which policies are popular, and which to underplay in the run up to the election.

The BBC Panorama investigation revealed that the Republican Party spent in the region of $70 million on Facebook advertising alone during the US election. Although it may seem excessive, it was certainly effective. For the first time in its history, the United States voted in a president with absolutely no political or military experience. Welcome Donald J. Trump.

Political free reign

So, what’s the problem? Well, although Facebook is a great resource in terms of digital marketing, the implications of political campaigning are a little more worrying. As of yet, campaigning on Facebook is largely unregulated. Social media marketing agencies can utilise Facebook’s extensive insight into individuals to provide them with ads that they think will be of specific interest to them. So, instead of having your newsfeed clogged up with promotional material that’s of no relevance to you, you only see products which you’re likely to buy.

When it comes to persuasive political messaging, micro-targeting can easily be used to convince individuals that a political party has their best interests at heart. In the upcoming general election for example, political parties could easily target the residents of Lancashire with messages about fracking, or doctors and nurses with their plans for the NHS. In the past, broadcasters of political propaganda have had to adhere to strict codes of partiality and advertising restrictions. Yet, with the current lack of regulation, political campaigners have free reign to promote whatever they want in any way they see fit.

Fake news

Another problem with political campaigning on Facebook is fake news. Due to the nature of the platform, Facebook makes it incredibly easy for political campaigners to spread false news stories about opposing parties.

During the US presidential campaign, numerous fake news allegations spread across the internet, predominantly transported by Facebook. Stories included allegations of Hilary Clinton being part of a paedophile ring and one that claimed President Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in US schools. And what did Facebook do about it? Well, not a lot.

As you can imagine, Facebook has come under fire for their inaction during the presidential election and has since made efforts to combat fake news. The social network has released guides on how to spot fake news and says it has removed thousands of false accounts, as well as removing fake news stories from the platform. However, many argue that fake news stories just aren’t coming down quick enough. What’s more, many of these fake news accounts spend money to reach their targeted audience through adverts, which ultimately benefits the platform financially.

As the UK general election draws nearer, we’re undoubtedly going to see more political messages appearing on our newsfeeds. Micro-targeting and lack of regulation have certainly made Facebook an unparalleled campaign tool, but has fake news made voters more sceptical than ever? With the main political parties’ election campaigns just getting underway, we’ll have to wait and see who really uses Facebook to its full advantage.

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