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The Facebook Election – what’s really behind digital ‘micro-targeting’ is our flawed electoral system

We are right to worry about how much companies and campaigns know when they target us with social media ads

Facebook website. Micro-targeting voters isn’t just at the heart of British winner-takes-all politics – it has been happening here for decades. When we see stories in the media of people being targeted on  Facebook and other social media, it is nothing new.

In 2015 just a handful of constituencies determined the result – a 12 seat majority for David Cameron. And with candidates only needing a plurality of the vote, the field of vision narrows. Parties know where their strongholds are and where undecided voters live. They spend most time and effort in the handful of hyper-competitive seats.

In this election, targeting is being taken to a new level of sophistication. Combining highly personal demographic data with social media behaviour, they evaluate voters through a psychological lens. They are honing their communications to new levels.

This isn’t all bad, of course. Digital campaigning can be more effective when it talks to people about their issues – joining their conversations rather than one-way broadcasts.

But a downside is lack of transparency – we have no idea who or how the parties are going after voters. Unlike public billboard or television broadcast, this type of communications is ‘for your eyes only’ – and could enable parties to pedal widely different messages without being held accountable.  

It’s the latest trend of something rife in our politics. The Electoral Reform Society found that campaigns spend 22 times as much money in most competitive constituencies compared to the safest seats. That looks likely to be replicated when it comes to the new digital micro-targeting. The same happens in the US, which also uses the First Past the Post system.

Telling candidates and activists to put their energies into one group of voters and ignore the rest is a disturbing democratic…

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