Fine Gael’s online spending was on a par with the British Conservatives’ recent campaign outlay as the government party tried to win the youth vote in Election 2020, a Business Post analysis has found.
In total, €370,811 was spent by parties to target voters on Facebook and Instagram between January 7 and Wednesday, February 5 – the last day for which that data was available.
Official political parties account for 55 per cent of that spend, buying €204,197 worth of ads. Individual candidates and local groups made up most of the rest of the spending.
According to the latest figures, Fine Gael spent almost €85,708 over the course of the campaign.
Fianna Fáil spent €65,472, but all parties will have a higher final figure as they ramped up their spending in the last days of the campaign.
Labour spent €16,524, Sinn Féin €16,047, Solidarity €9,870, Green Party €5,776, Social Democrats €3,606 and People Before Profit €1,194.
The high spending is part of a growth in online campaigning that has evolved in recent years and centres around the targeting of political ads to voters based on variables such as demographic or location.
According to online ad monitoring organisation Who Targets Me, spend per head in Ireland by the two largest parties was similar to that spent by the Conservative Party in the recent British election.
Fine Gael’s per-capita spending at some points during the last week of the campaign was more than any British party spent per citizen in a single day during the 2019 election. The ad spend per citizen is a fraction of a cent, but as Fine Gael spent more than €9,000 a day in the last week, this meant that it was more per capita than in Britain.
“Pro-rated, a €9,300 spend in one day (as was the recorded daily spend of Fine Gael on Sunday, February 2) is more than any UK party spent in a single day during the 2019 election,” Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me, said.
“But while we are seeing a significantly higher spend by Irish political parties on the general election campaign, the ads themselves are not as sophisticated,” said Jeffers.
According to the figures in Facebook’s Ad Library, Fine Gael’s ads were primarily aimed at 18 to 34-year-olds.
Digital marketing expert Damien Mulley said that the party should have considered targeting older demographics who are more agreeable to their policies.
He noted that Sinn Féin had switched its message in the last days of the campaign to target young people and first-time voters with information on how to vote. The ads gave details on how to cast a ballot, such as marking a number and not an “X”, under the message “voting for change is easy”.
Sinn Féin’s overall online campaign appeared to be more sophisticated than the other main parties as it recruited to “be part of the digital rising” by working as “grassroots online activists” through its website.
These were tasked with promoting the party’s message online from its own accounts. Sinn Féin also employed a Berlin-based supporter Eric Eckhart to analyse the response to the party’s message so that the data would inform which ads should have more money spent on them.
Eckhart worked with the parties communications team which refined the messages.
Mulley said that Sinn Féin had kept its messaging simple and compared it to their “doorstep campaign gone digital”.
In comparison, Fine Gael issued a number of different messages and tones in its videos. The party even deleted a video spoofing Fianna Fáil in response to negative criticism. The video, set to the Benny Hill theme music, featured people wearing masks of Fianna Fáil front bench members Michael McGrath, Willie O’Dea, Eamon Ó Cuív and leader Micheál Martin .
It showed them searching for “policies” in bins, kitchen cabinets, and under tables, and ended with a screen stating that “over 72 hours into GE2020 Fianna Fáil hasn’t produced any policies”.
Martin said the video was “juvenile” and his staff in the Fianna Fáil communications team believed it was a misstep as it deviated so much from Fine Gael’s campaign tone.
Fianna Fáil employed the tactic of not promoting politicians in many online ads, but ordinary people criticising the current government while geo-targeting ads promoting candidates to their local constituencies.
Other than the Benny Hill video and an attack-ad about the prospect of Fianna Fáil going into government with Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and the main parties largely kept their online campaigns to the same messages as their pamphlets and billboard ads.
A pledge released in the first week of campaigning by tech transparency advocates asking political parties to campaign honestly, openly and fairly was signed by most parties except for Sinn Féin, Aontú, Solidarity and some far-right groups.
Liz Carolan, founder of Digital Action which drafted the pledge, said the Irish campaign was relatively clean compared to the increasingly negative election campaigns we have seen online in recent years in the US and Britain.
“Part of the reason is that the voting system means that you don’t win by trashing your opponent because you actually have five opponents and need second transfers,” Carolan said.
“We also don’t have as much money in politics, so there are fewer snake oil salesmen selling dark arts and our mainstream media environment is very popular. It’s also a shared media, whereas in the UK and US, people live in different information worlds so you can get away with a lot more.”
Writing on BusinessPost.ie last week, Facebook’s head of public policy in Ireland Dualta Ó Broin said that the platform had invested in new systems to prevent it being misused during elections.
There have been calls for Facebook to stop taking political ads after a similar move by Twitter in the face of growing concern in the US that social media platforms have been used for foreign interference and maliciously spreading misinformation.
“Since May 2019, in Ireland, anyone who wants to run a political ad on our platforms must go through a verification process to prove who they are and that they live here. Political ads are then labelled so you can see who has paid for them. We also put the ads into an ad library so that everyone can see the ads that are running or have run in the past, how much was spent on them and the types of people who saw them in their feed,” Ó Broin said.
Despite the new efforts by Facebook to police its platform, its moderators did need to remove ads during the campaign which had gotten through the checking system.
A Renua ad with a man pointing a knife, above text criticising migration policy ran on Facebook and Instagram from the party’s official page without any political disclaimer indicating who it was paid for by or targeted at.
Jeffers, of Who Targets Me, said that this highlighted the gaps in Facebook’s efforts to ensure transparency in political advertising.
“It’s an obvious failing that Facebook, with so many employees in Dublin and such a public, company-wide focus on electoral integrity in 2020, fails to flag ads from a recognised political party during an election campaign. A quick visit to Wikipedia would have shown them the parties running in this election, so they could add them all to their transparency archive.”
The TikTok effect
Sinn Féin supporters utilised the most downloaded app of 2020 to promote the party to younger voters. TikTok, which is mainly used by teens who create and share content such as memes, dances and lip-syncing, has exploded since 2017. It was the most downloaded app in Ireland this year, according to research.
An analysis by Mulley Communications showed that while no official party included it in their online campaigns, it was used to promote political messages.
Posts on TikTok tagged with a mention of Fine Gael 4,000 views in the past few months, mostly critical of the party.
The 66,000 tags of Fine Gael were also mostly negative.
Sinn Féin, however, has generated 446,000 views in the past few months with mostly positive coverage.
Mulley found that former party leader Gerry Adams was particularly popular among the young users of the app, with two million mostly positive mentions.