An ad kept popping up as I watched YouTube clips the other day, the type of ad you’re forced to sit through before you can play the video you’ve selected. The ad was from Protect the 8th, one of the groups campaigning for a No vote in the abortion referendum, and its slickness was almost out of step with the more sensational messaging the No side has been using. “Don’t be tricked,” it declared.
I ignored it the first time. But then I watched a completely different YouTube video. There the ad was again. It was clear a big, and expensive, online advertising campaign was being rolled out. Around the same time people noticed adverts on Facebook linking to a website called Undecided8, which purported to be an unbiased website for “facts”.
At this point Gavin Sheridan picked up on what was happening. Sheridan is the founder of a legal-data start-up, Vizlegal, and formerly innovation director at Storyful. He was tweeting about his investigation. “Back when I was writing and warning about this last year: this is what I meant,” he tweeted at one point. “We have no idea who’s doing what, with what money, with what motivations, from where. And now buttons are being pushed somewhere – and we have to deal with the consequences of political inaction.”
So what was happening? Sheridan identified Fuzati, a Texas-based “Catholic marketing and technology firm”, as a company working with Protect the 8th. Fuzati were in Dublin on April 23rd; they shared a photograph on Facebook of people in a nicely appointed room. “We are here in Dublin with ProtectThe8th this morning. Pray for us! #warroomsessions.”
Identify undecided voters
The Undecided8 website was built, and the Facebook and YouTube advertisements rolled out, to identify undecided voters. This kind of campaign would not have worked on Facebook if its architects, the No campaign, had said they were behind it. It was designed to engage undecided voters by claiming to deliver information rather than opinion. “Yes or No? Unsure? Here are some unbiased facts to consider before you vote,” one Undecided8 Facebook ad read. At least eight advertisements of this nature appeared on the social-media platform.
A Facebook representative said: “We are aware that the spread of false news is a concern for many people, particularly in the context of the forthcoming referendum, which is why we pushed fast to get a third-party fact-checking partnership with TheJournal.ie in place for the start of May. As Facebook has always said, however, we cannot be the arbiters of truth, and nor do we think people want us to assume an editorial role.”
Protect the 8th and Fuzati could not be reached for comment on whether Fuzati was involved in this particular campaign.
The website used Leadpages, a service that tracks people who click into a site. One of Leadpages’ features: “We place Facebook’s tracking pixel on your landing pages for you, so it’s easy to retarget, and access accurate answers to your analytics curiosities.”
So when countless Irish undecided voters clicked on these ads on Facebook, bringing them to the Undecided8 website, their data was captured. Undecided8 then knew who had visited, and could send them strong No messages in the run-up to the referendum, in an attempt to sway their position. This is a type of campaigning that those calling for regulation of online political advertising warned us about.
It is very unusual in Ireland, and it has ramifications for campaigning, voter behaviour and even the outcome of a referendum.
I spoke to Sheridan on Friday, to assess the issue. “I’ll tell you what it’s a bit like,” he said. “Instead of people going canvassing door to door, it’s like, ‘Why don’t we knock on 10,000 people’s doors at the same time with different ads and see how they react?’ You run an ad campaign targeting Irish voters, trying to see who’s undecided. You knock on their digital doors on Facebook and say, ‘Are you undecided?’ and, ‘If so click here.’ Once you’ve gathered that intelligence and audience data you run your ads later to those undecideds to vote No.”
So two types of referendum campaign are under way. One is in full view: the posters and debates and daily media reports. The other is in the shadows online, where Ireland has dawdled on regulation and where it is impossible to quantify the impact of the type of advertising, used by Undecided8.
A lot of dark advertising – that is visible only to a targeted group – is rudimentary or crude, with sensational messaging designed to illicit an emotional response. These are the bottom feeders of voter manipulation.
Get a little more sophisticated and you get to the shoals, where adverts or links direct you to information that tries to sway you further. One recent Facebook ad asked, “Still on the fence about the 8th?” and linked to a web page with the core message that voters shouldn’t trust politicians – a message that has become central to the anti-repeal campaign.
Then we get to the sharks: the tools and methods that hunt voters, going after specific demographics. This stuff is smarter. And this is what the Undecided8 campaign appears to have done. Facebook might know how many people saw those adverts on its platform, but we don’t. The YouTube ads have more than 600,000 views, however.
For now it disappears. The Facebook page publishing the ads was deactivated, the website taken down. When these ads re-emerge who will see them? And with what effect? With choppy waters ahead, think of these kinds of tactics as like a whale’s behaviour.
When a whale breaches everyone sees it: it’s massive and attention-grabbing; it’s the show. But then it disappears beneath the surface, off back into the depths. We may see the thing for a show-stopping moment, but the real action is out of sight.