Facebook scrollers who live in the South Okanagan–West Kootenay federal electoral riding may have noticed a rainbow of sponsored posts crop up on their feeds, promoted by the campaigns of local candidates between last June and now. It’s because social media advertising has become a key battleground for political campaigns – promoted posts can be more discrete than lawn signs, but more impactful too.
As of Oct. 13, Facebook had earned $11.5 million by publishing 78,603 political ads related to the 2019 Federal election.
Facebook was compelled to make advertising data public after the Elections Modernization Act (Bill C-76) became law in December 2018 and was rolled out in June. The act stipulates third parties such as Facebook must report the number of partisan advertisements it publishes, who purchases those ads and how much money is spent.
Google Canada has said it is not accepting political ads during the election period.
Nationally, the Conservative Party of Canada has spent $987,695 on Facebook ads since June, nearly one third of that sum having been spent between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16. Ads promoting Justin Trudeau’s page have cost his campaign $874,294 for the same time period, while the Liberal Party has spent an extra $691,369 on its national campaign. The NDP has spent $246,648, the Green Party, $45,639 and the People’s Party, $19,817.
While Facebook allows anyone to see any ads, inactive or still in circulation, that are “about social issues, elections or politics,” the audience data it offers is restricted to generalizations. The site’s ad disclosure tool does not reveal any region more precise than a province.
When creating an ad on Facebook, a page administrator can direct any particular post to single out a select audience. Facebook offers the user the option of singling out men or women, while defining things like age ranges and locations, as well as an individual’s interests and behaviours, such as “opposition to immigration,” “traveller” and “Facebook Page admins.”
Targeting ads in the South Okanagan–West Kootenay riding
Locally, four of the six candidates in the South Okanagan–West Kootenay riding are stretching their dollars online as well by running ads. Neither People’s Party candidate Sean Taylor nor Independent Carolina Hopkins have purchased any.
Liberal candidate Connie Denesiuk is the riding’s top online spender, having dropped $5,722 between June and Oct. 16 on Facebook ads that were directed to residents of B.C, allowing the campaign’s ads to appear on Facebook news feeds more than 100,000 times.
Messages in more than half of the 26 ads put out by the Denesiuk campaign convey messages encouraging people to vote in the election, some ads being more overtly partisan than others, with a handful asking their audiences to “vote early for Justin Trudeau.” More often than not, Denesiuk’s ads were directed to men and women in two key age ranges: 25-34 and 55 and over. None of her campaign’s ads attacked other candidates or parties.
While the Denesiuk campaign concentrated some of their spending on people under 34, ads from Conservative candidate Helena Konanz were targeted, more often than not, at men and women over 65. In fact, women under 24 made up zero per cent of the targeted audiences for at least 15 of the 39 ads put out by the Konanz camp, which spent $3,133 on Facebook ads between June and Oct. 16. Meanwhile, men and women over 65 made up 38 per cent of an ad promoting the Conservative promise of a child tax credit. People ranging in age from 18 to 54 made up 37 per cent of that same ad’s audience.
According to Statistics Canada population data for the Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary, 29.5 per cent of the region’s population is over 65, suggesting that ads targeting older audiences were in tune with the voter make-up of the area. One third of the riding’s largest city, Penticton, is also people aged 65 and over.
Tailoring the message
The Konanz campaign was also the only one to promote posts attacking other parties and their leaders. Fourteen of the 39 ads went after Konanz’s opposition. For example, three versions of an August ad used the move from NDP to Green by Quebec candidate Pierre Nantel to suggest to voters, “Don’t waste your time on a dying party.” Another ad, building off NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s comments on a possible coalition with the Liberal Party, said that a vote for her NDP counterpart “is a vote for Justin Trudeau. You can’t afford it.”
Spending just one twentieth of what Konanz has on Facebook ads, NDP Richard Cannings has put out 15 ads for $153, as of Oct. 16. Cannings’s ads have also zeroed in on older demographics. On average, women over 65 made up 18.5 per cent of the targeted audience. The ads themselves have all been party-related – 7 are endorsements from various public figures, while the others advertise party campaign promises on things like medicare and climate change. Only one ad from the Cannings camp mentions another party (the Conservatives). The ad evokes cuts made under a Stephen Harper government.
While all candidates who put out Facebook ads directed more content towards older users of the platform, Green Party candidate Tara Howse had at least three ads appear for audiences between 13 and 17 as well. The ads had future-looking messages and were also heavily directed to grandparent-aged users as well.
In total, Elections Canada permits each candidate in the South Okanagan–West Kootenay riding to spend $130,238 on their campaign, approximately $15,000 less than what is permitted in the neighbouring riding of Kootenay–Columbia.
The figures don’t guarantee candidates will actually spend to the limit of what’s allowed. Elections Canada says limits are calculated based on the following factors: the number of candidates; electoral districts with fewer candidates than the national average; and geographic areas where the number of candidates per square kilometre is less than 10.
The final number is also affected by the inflation adjustment factor on the day the election was called, which this year was Sept. 11.
With files from Tyler Harper
*Figures for this story were compiled on Oct. 18.