Even as Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford pushes back hard against comparisons to Donald Trump heading into this spring’s Ontario election, he has been using Facebook advertising to target Ontarians who are “interested” in the U.S. President.
Meanwhile, local candidates for Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have been highlighting exactly how much their government’s last-ditch spending spree will bring to their ridings. Issue-specific petitions are being used by all the province’s major political parties to encourage voters to share their data. And an array of outside interest groups – some doing one party’s bidding, others trying to drum up cross-partisan support for their issue of choice – are doing their best to shape voters’ opinions.
This is the sort of online messaging that will help shape Ontario’s spring election – and that tells the story of what a modern political campaign looks like, as digital micro-targeting increasingly replaces mass communication through more traditional advertising.
Much of that story will by its nature fly under most voters’ radars, because they will only see the sliver of ads targeted directly to them. But through a partnership with the U.S. investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica, The Globe and Mail is monitoring as many of those ads as possible, to give readers the fullest available picture.
The more Ontarians who install a web-browser extension designed by ProPublica to capture the Facebook ads in their feeds – available here, along with a full explanation of privacy protections – the more complete the picture will be. Before the provincial campaign officially begins, it is already starting to take shape – as evidenced by these examples of ads, and their targeting information, captured so far.
Third-party attack ads
Ontario Proud is the most prevalent example of a time-honoured tradition – outside groups helping one party by attacking another – being practised in a new way. Those attacks used to be on TV, often funded by unions (attacking the right) or corporate groups (attacking the left). Now, partly because of newly restrictive third-party spending limits and also because digital advertising is increasingly more effective, the action is mostly online.
While more traditional interests have struggled to adapt, outfits such as this – essentially a Conservative-aligned consultant’s one-man operation – are proving better at serving up images and videos that generate strong reactions among target audiences.
One of Facebook’s most basic forms of targeting is age-based. Most of the ads captured so far by our tool, which uses an algorithm to determine the likelihood an ad is “political” based on the text of the ad, use the default age setting (that is, people aged 18 and above). But some are directed much more precisely, such as the ad above for Environmental Defence Canada, an environmental group based out of Toronto, which has run some ads with a 70-per-cent or greater “political likelihood” according to ProPublica – though it’s worth noting that Environmental Defence Canada is a non-partisan, public interest group . First seen on April 11, the ad features author Margaret Atwood and targets people aged 55 and above who live in or were recently in Ontario, an audience segment that’s likely to be familiar with her work. Variations on this ad also targeted broader segments, such as people aged 18 and above, “people who may be similar to their customers,” and those “interested in The Handmaid’s Tale .”
In some ways, politics becoming more digital also makes it more local. Among Facebook’s advantages to candidates is that it lets them reach voters within a single riding, which in most of Ontario isn’t possible through traditional media outlets serving a wider population. That allows them to take advantage of their parties’ spending commitments in ways they couldn’t previously, by breaking them down into the specific benefits for their constituents – and, when it’s a government MPP such as this one, to imply that her opponents would take away whatever is being offered.
Targeting the like-minded
One way for parties to identify likely supporters is by trying to reach out to those whose Facebook behaviour suggests ideological symmetry, which is what Mr. Ford appears to be trying to do here. Although Mr. Trump is not generally popular in Ontario, it’s a safe bet that those voters who do like him would overwhelmingly support Mr. Ford over Ms. Wynne.
That behaviour can include displaying a strong interest in politicians or policies outside Ontario. Given Mr. Trump’s extremely low favourability numbers in Canada, the PCs will clearly need support from many voters who don’t like the U.S. President if they’re to win. But it’s such a safe bet that most of his fans in Ontario would prefer Mr. Ford to Ms. Wynne that targeting them with ads from the PC Leader’s account means going after low-hanging fruit – an advantage the Tories presumably decided was worth the risk of encouraging comparison.
Beyond party and candidate messaging, some of the most surprising ads have come from special-interest groups looking to push their agenda on a particular topic. Canadians for Eyewear Choice, an organization with just more than 3,200 likes on Facebook dedicated to protecting “Ontario consumers’ freedom for choice when it comes to ordering eyeglasses and contact lenses online,” ran ads featuring Ontario’s major party leaders as recently as last week. Other third-party groups, such as the Police Association of Ontario and the Ontario Medical Association, have run issue ads about the use of private-sector security guards and surgery wait times.
Highlighting under-the-radar policies
A pilot project to test a guaranteed income in a few Ontario towns has gotten little media attention recently among the government’s far more comprehensive and expensive social-policy commitments. But versions of this ad being displayed on Facebook in many parts of the province – including some locations, such as Kingston, where the pilot project is not running – suggest the Liberals have research showing it plays well with some voters. It goes to show that more traditional media may capture only part of the policy debate playing out during an election, which stands to help define the next government’s mandate.
Government public-service announcements
Government ads, notifying people of things such as tax deadlines, benefits and continuing infrastructure projects, also make an appearance in the database. While not political in the same way a petition or issue advertisement might be, they do sometimes promote topics that could be seen as partisan, such as Ontario infrastructure projects undertaken by the Liberals. Some of these ads also have very specific targeting parameters, such as an Ontario government ad about the tax-filing deadline targeted at people “interested in immigration.”
“Make your voice heard,” “sign below if you agree,” “add your name” – a common prompt from the political messaging seen so far is a request for the reader to sign some form of petition. These petitions, on topics ranging from gun-control legislation to universal basic income, are a tool used by parties to collect data on their potential electors, specifically names and e-mail addresses they can then use for targeting in future Facebook advertisements and e-mail callouts. Given Ontario’s nearing provincial election, the petitions are also likely an attempt to build lists and data they can cross-reference with their own voter databases ahead of the official campaign period.
Retargeting of past supporters
If advertisers have the names and e-mail addresses of people they wish to reach, Facebook offers access directly to their profiles. It allows parties to reach out to people whose information they’ve previously collected through other means – presumably activities such as door-to-door canvassing or volunteer sign-ups, though conceivably it could also include data acquisition from other entities – as the NDP has done here.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article suggested Environmental Defence Canada was a partisan political group. In fact, they are a non-partisan public interest group.