The dark art of shaping perceptions with political ads in Peterborough

Peterborough, ahead of its by-election today (Thursday 6th June), has been targeted with Facebook advertisements from the major political parties and candidates.

However, while local issues such as fly-tipping, improvements to the A47 and cuts to local schools and bus services dominate the ads by the candidates, the parties main Facebook pages are running ads offering up conveniently (for them) contradictory predictions on the likely outcome.

Labour placed ads targeted primarily at 18–34 year olds stating they have a simple choice: “Only Labour can stop the Brexit Party”. It features an image, not of local Brexit Party candidate Mike Greene, but of their leader, Nigel Farage juxtaposed with Labour’s candidate, Lisa Forbes.

Meanwhile, The Brexit Party, running their first campaign to win an MP claim, based on the EU election results in Peterborough, that the Conservatives can’t win and only they can beat “Corbyn’s Labour”.

In an ad targeted at younger voters (demographically more likely to support staying in the EU), they also argue that the Liberal Democrats are the only alternative to themselves, in an apparent bid to encourage remain voters switch from Labour.

“Only 2 parties are being honest about their positions in Peterborough,” says the ad. “Vote for democracy with The Brexit Party or vote to remain the EU [sic] with the Lib Dems this Thursday.”

But Labour and The Brexit Party aren’t the only ones making predictions. According to Peterborough Conservatives, based on local election results, it’s only them or Labour who can win in Peterborough. They’ve run ads saying that a vote for The Brexit Party would help Labour ‘sneak through’.

Tactical Voting or Voter Suppression?

Each of these ads embodies a classic by-election approach of framing the result before it’s happened. The Brexit Party doesn’t want Conservative voters to turn up (to maximise its vote share) and wants remain supporting Labour voters to switch to the Liberal Democrats, thus weakening the party they see as their biggest rival. Labour wants to motivate its voters to stop The Brexit Party, whereas the Conservatives want you to forget they even exist.

One concern about the use of highly targeted ads is that they can be used to suppress voter turnout. There’s nothing in these messages as blatant as some you see in the US, that promote a different day for the election (“Democrats vote on Friday”), but the Peterborough ads are an attempt to shape people’s attitudes towards voting, sometimes to try and keep them at home.

“The Peterborough ads are an attempt to shape people’s attitudes towards voting, sometimes to try and keep them at home.”

There’s nothing illegal here (the pros will argue it’s “smart politics”), but these ads have nothing to say on the issues that face people in Peterborough either locally or nationally, or even the candidates fighting for votes so they can go to Westminster to represent them. They’re just tactics.

If democracy isn’t about participation and ideas, it’s not worth much at all. Modern forms of campaigning, where parties try and segment an already smaller-than-it-should-be electorate to death, where strategists comfortably ensconced in Westminster plug data into global social media platforms and pull out the credit card to run ads to try and divide people in order to rule over them, don’t care about the higher democratic principles. Their only function is to win. But if victory comes at the cost of an ugly process, with people losing faith in it and choosing not to take part, democracy loses legitimacy. And then we all lose.

These tactics are older than social media advertising, but the ability to target people more accurately, and to reach great numbers of them repeatedly, for a fantastically small sum (£5 will buy you 1,000 impressions of an ad) make them a logical behaviour of a modern campaign.

Alongside this, the old way still exists. Away from the ‘clever’ political game, the candidates’ own campaigns have largely focused on local issues. According to the Facebook’s data, Conservative candidate Paul Bristow spent £1,276 in the final week of the campaign, while Labour candidate Lisa Forbes spent £1,111. All of their ads are ones you’d recognise anywhere: roads, bins and schools — the stuff of daily life.