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To many Ontarians, it felt like the province’s spring election began long ago. But as the writ period officially began last week, the volume of campaign-related advertising on social media shot upward.

As it did, some telling trends took shape – from Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives placing an emphasis on very specific demographics, to the Liberals toning down their attacks on Mr. Ford even as at least one Liberal-friendly third party stepped up such attacks, to Andrea Horwath’s NDP getting a big assist from energized union allies.

The Globe and Mail was able to identify these and other developments through its continuing partnership with the U.S. journalism non-profit ProPublica to track political ads being targeted to voters on Facebook. The more Ontarians install a browser extension designed by ProPublica (available here, along with a full explanation of privacy protections), the more we are able to get a full picture of a modern campaign in which micro-targeting has largely replaced traditional mass communication.

What are voters seeing, and why are they seeing it? Here are some early indications:

Outside groups take aim at controversial PC candidates

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When it comes to outside groups helping one party by attacking another, the run-up to this election has been dominated by Ontario Proud – a small operation, run by a former Conservative staffer, that has gotten so much engagement with memes and videos attacking Kathleen Wynne that it barely needs to pay for advertising any more since so much of its content is shared organically.

Now, there is something of an answer in the form of North99, a “progressive media network” helmed by a former provincial Liberal aide. North99 appears less narrowly focused on partisan attacks and more inclined to push Facebook users toward left-of-centre issues-based content, but its advertising so far this election has aimed to raise fears of a Ford government by drawing attention to local PC candidates who might be off-putting to certain voters.

In addition to Andrew Lawton, a former Rebel Media contributor appointed by Mr. Ford to run in the London area, North99’s recent targets have included Ottawa-area PC candidate Merrilee Fullerton, whom it accuses of being an advocate for privatized health care.

Social conservatives spin a setback

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Two months after she played kingmaker in Mr. Ford’s leadership win, social-conservative activist Tanya Granic Allen was dumped as a PC candidate following the release of a recording in which she said gay marriage and sex education being “forced on” people in Croatia made her “almost vomit in disbelief.”

As Ms. Granic Allen complained that her movement had been betrayed, evangelical leader Charles McVety stepped in to do damage control. Mr. McVety targeted party supporters with an ad that sought to absolve Mr. Ford by blaming Ms. Granic Allen’s dismissal on Ms. Wynne, whom he called “an abusive, powerful woman.”

Unions push hard for the NDP

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Winning the past four Ontario elections, the Liberals got a big assist from organized labour. There’s still a bit of union help going their way, but on Facebook it’s far more visible for the NDP.

In fact, there appears so far to be more Facebook union ads on the NDP’s behalf than ads from the NDP itself. And some, such as the above spot from United Steelworkers – identified as coming from “Better Change for Ontario,” which is similar to the NDP’s campaign slogan – supplement Andrea Horwath’s sunny messaging with attacks on her opponents.

The Steelworkers, along with some other unions currently placing ads, such as CUPE, also sided with the NDP in previous elections. But they seem more enthusiastic this time.

Older (married, male) voters get pitched by the PCs

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Perhaps the Tories are using other platforms to try to win over demographics, such as younger women, that have shied away from them in recent campaigns. But on Facebook, they appear focused on mobilizing those most inclined to support them.

Other than Liberal ads aimed at raising money, most of the other parties’ ads seem to be shown to Ontarians of all voting ages. But many of the PC ads are targeted to older voters, often over the age of 65. And there are a good number of instances, as above, when the ads are being targeted to a group that might make up more of the PC base than any other: married middle-aged men.

Liberals go hyperlocal

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Maybe they’re more organized, or have more micro-targetable local commitments to sell, having been in government so long. Maybe with their leader’s approval rating very low, they know that they need to put other faces forward.

Whatever the reason, the Liberals have been running many more ads highlighting their riding-level nominees than have the other parties. And whereas the PC or NDP local ads that do exist have generally been non-specific, the Liberals — working from a template — have been getting deep into the weeds promoting riding-level commitments.

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