The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians

Leroy Beckett for The Spinoff

OPINION: Facebook has had a hell of a year. After facing scandal after scandal and the United Nations' exposure of dangerous issues with the platform, they have rolled out some changes in an attempt to do better, or at least be more transparent.

Some of the changes are questionable, like adjusting the Newsfeed to show users fewer posts from news sites, but some are really good, like the new info and ads section on Pages.

The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians
Photo credit: The Spinoff

Facebook now lets users know more about pages from which posts originate. If you go to a page and click the "info and ads" tab you can see when the page was started and if it has changed names. That's useful if you are trying to spot a fake news site that has popped up overnight.

It also means you can now see all the ads a page is running anywhere.

After the 2016 American presidential election there was a lot of criticism of political candidates like Trump using hidden ads on Facebook. They're ads that are only visible to the people they were targeted at, which meant they were hard to track, fact check, or hold the advertisers accountable.

For example the Trump campaign reportedly used hidden ads to target black Americans and discourage them from voting.

So Facebook now lets anyone see all the ads a page is running at the time. It's a valuable tool for democracy because it means we can keep an eye on political ads. It also means you get to see all of the test ads politicians are hoping will only be seen by small audiences.

Why use ads? In part because Facebook has cut the "organic reach" for pages, meaning you see fewer posts from pages you have liked.

More interestingly it also allows you to target posts at specific demographics. These can be highly specific, like your pop culture habits or political views. Facebook got in trouble last year for allowing advertisers to target people who "expressed interest in the topics of "Jew hater," "How to burn jews," or, "History of 'why jews ruin the world.'".

You can check which of your "interests" Facebook uses to sells ads to you here. They also allow advertisers to target people they think might like their page but don't yet, or people in a specific location.

With that context, let's have a look at what ads New Zealand politicians are running.

As I wrote this Simon Bridges' Facebook page was running six almost identical ads to get likes for his page, an entirely reasonable use of the ad tools.

The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians
Photo credit: The Spinoff

I'm guessing this is message testing, where you put a few dollars behind each ad to see which photo gets the best results and then push that one wider. This is something we also do at ActionStation.

Paula Bennett and Amy Adams are doing the same, complete with the same weird ellipsis...

The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians
Photo credit: The Spinoff
The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians
Photo credit: The Spinoff

Similarly the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand page were running a cavalcade of ads (18) for an Auckland event. They are testing photos and headlines, so you get a lot of photos of co-leader Marama Davidson or a cute child with a range of headlines.

The Facebook ads being quietly test-driven by NZ politicians
Photo credit: The Spinoff

Earlier this year the National Party were using the location of Facebook users to run a series of highly targeted ads on the regional fuel tax, which is kind of smart. It makes the ads look more personalised and relevant to the people seeing them, and Facebook's tools mean only people in those areas will see them.

Labour are boosting a post and video about their winter energy payment, but Jacinda Ardern isn't advertising anything at the moment. Neither is the National Party. David Seymour is trying to recruit a young person in Epsom.

As Thomas Coughlan at Newsroom pointed out, during the last election our political parties were using Facebook ads a lot more actively.

At election time Labour spent $174,637 on Facebook ads, National spent $75,352 (plus $202, 869 on "online advertising" through an agency). There is no record of what those ads were, or who saw them.

A solution to that is a political ad archive, and Facebook has the tools to roll one out here. In the US and Brazil every ad Facebook deems political (which is problematic) is recorded in a publicly searchable archive that gives you information on how much was spent and who was targeted. At the very least we should be able to expect Facebook will have one in place for New Zealand by the end of next year, as the 2020 election roars into the foreground.

Leroy Beckett is a campaigner working for ActionStation on how the internet is impacting democracy