(Bloomberg) -- The London terror attack on Saturday night compelled political parties to lay off the vitriol for a few hours. But on social media the gloves stayed on.
With June 8 elections nearing and Labour closing in, the Conservatives unleashed an ad on May 26 lambasting opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as weak on terror. The clip was viewed more than 5.5 million times even before people were stabbed to death in a popular hot spot by assailants Prime Minister Theresa May said were driven by the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”
Labour denounced it as “fake news.” Yet even after the attack and the official pause in campaigning the video continued to spread around the world’s biggest social network. By the time May took to the lectern outside her residence of 10 Downing Street to say “enough was enough,” it was racking up 300 views each minute. By Monday morning the clip had 6 million Facebook views, almost three times as many as the Tories’ next-most popular video.
Separately, independent anti-Corbyn videos went viral without party backing. One clip highlighting his reluctance to endorse a shoot-to-kill anti-terror policy, posted by pro-Brexit group Leave.EU, had been viewed 1.6 million times by Monday morning.
The vast viewing figures for these partisan videos illustrate the difficulty in regulating political campaigning in the age of social media. Even before the fatal attack, British voters in marginal seats confirmed to Bloomberg News that their Facebook feeds are now regularly peppered with political ads.
Tess Baxter, a doctorate student, said she sees adverts from the Conservative Party almost every time she opens up her Facebook account. “I don't recall a campaign that has ever targeted me this much,” she said.
London-based playwright Andrew Maddock reported a similar experience and expressed concern about how political parties were taking over his Facebook feed. “I don't want it to be a place where I'm being told what to think. I take the same issue with adverts sometimes,” he said.
Unlike on television, where political advertising is tightly regulated, social media allows campaigns to zero in on potential voters more accurately than ever before. That has led to a mushrooming of political advertising largely beyond the reach of U.K. regulators and campaign finance restrictions.
The Ad Election
By Sunday evening Britain’s political parties had posted more than 1,200 different ads during the election campaign, with voters in many tightly-contested seats specifically targeted for their interests, gender and location, according to data shared with Bloomberg News.
May’s Tories have published 113 paid-for adverts, with Labour Party putting out 184. Despite trailing in the polls, the Liberal Democrats have pushed out 700 sponsored Facebook adverts since May called the snap vote on April 18.
The data, compiled by independent monitoring project Who Targets Me, show the scale of the sophisticated methods now employed to target voters in highly contested seats. The group asks users based in every U.K. constituency to collect information about how parties are behaving on Facebook.
Voters in predominantly marginal constituencies such as Southampton Test, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hendon and Derby North told Bloomberg how adverts from the Conservative Party continually appear in their Facebook feed or show up ahead of YouTube videos. Fify-two have come from May's own official page while just one has come from Corbyn's Facebook page.
This behavior is unlikely to be accidental. “Facebook’s algorithm will automatically optimize, so the advert that’s performing best against the different audiences will have the most money put behind it,” said Benedict Pringle, advertising executive and founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk.
Two years ago Conservative digital campaign strategists Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds suggested they ignored Instagram because their target audience wasn’t there. Now the Tories are using sponsored adverts on Instagram, a sign they see potential in its 10.8 million U.K. users.
In recent days social media users have also reported seeing Conservative adverts appear on Snapchat, in what appears to be the first time a British political party has used that medium to launch an ad campaign.
The wave of online advertising forms a stark contrast with previous U.K. elections. As recently as 2010, social networks were not sufficiently mature enough for political parties to use them for effective campaigning.
Louis Knight-Webb, co-founder of Who Targets Me, said his goal was to try and make online adverts more transparent.
“We just want to make sure that we never end up in a situation where a campaign has a great tech advantage over another campaign and wins because of fear and targets sensitive demographics.”