Monitoring Online Discourse During An Election: A 5-Part Series
How social medial monitoring can help Electoral Management Bodies to ascertain, measure, and validate political spending.
How politicians and their supporters invest in political messaging is rapidly changing. For the last few years, the amount of money spent on political advertising on the Internet has been growing exponentially. As well, new technologies present new advertising opportunities; automated agents such as bots amplify political messaging. All these developments create challenges for EMBs.
An EMB’s political financing team can use AI-based social media analytics to track political spending
As both technologies and transparency reporting rules are in flux, legal regulation and national directives are often a few steps behind what is technologically possible, and significant loopholes emerge.
In many jurisdictions, after an election all candidates, whether they won or lost, must submit a financial spending report to the EMB, to ensure that they have remained within applicable spending limits. Enforcement is often complaints-based: the EMB will investigate an issue if a complainant has alerted them to it. Social media monitoring can help the EMB to ascertain, measure, and validate whether overspending or infractions of elections laws have occurred.
Breaches of political financing rules include both overspending and under-reporting
With the advent of bot technology, many candidates are utilizing open-source online bot widgets or hiring consultants to create them. It’s a cost-effective strategy: Rather than putting an ad in a newspaper for $2,000, a person could, by procuring a bot, spend $50 for the same message reach. This creates a volume of online messaging that in many jurisdictions would be considered equivalent to advertising. However, bots often aren’t accounted for in political financing regulations, so this kind of electoral messaging can fly under the radar.
Social media can help political financing departments within EMBs to:
- measure, and
the amount of online advertising spending by candidates, local constituency associations, registered third party bodies (spending money on an issue or candidate), and by a political party itself.
Social media data can be leveraged to:
- ascertain, measure, and validate how much a candidate (or third party) spends
- ascertain, measure, and validate the extent to which a candidate uses advertising technologies (like bots), in order to measure the equivalent advertising value
- find evidence on social media that could support an ongoing EMB investigation: tracking the reach and impact of an ad posted in a foreign media outlet, or detecting political fundraisers, for example
Many major internet advertising hubs, pushed by regulators in various jurisdictions, now provide transparency reports on political spending on their platform. Some, like Twitter, have banned political advertising altogether.
MAJOR INTERNET PLATFORMS AND POLITICAL TRANSPARENCY
Facebook: Allows political advertising. Does not fact-check ads. Provides a sophisticated tool that reveals political spending on the platform.
Google: Limits audience targeting of election ads to age, gender, and general location (postal code level).  Provides a transparency report.
Microsoft: No political advertising allowed on their Bing search platform.
Reddit: Under new rules released in April 2020, preparatory to the US elections in November, the platform:
- manually reviews each political ad for messaging and creative content
- does not accept ads from parties outside the US
- only allows political ads at the federal level
It also lists spending on political ad campaigns that have run on Reddit since January 1, 2019.
Twitter: Bans all political advertising.
The data from these transparency reports, while valuable, is incomplete. The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) notes that only “4 percent of digital spending reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by two secretly-funded Democratic groups appear in public archives maintained by Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or Twitter.”
How does this happen? The problem is that platforms don’t have authoritative information to group all investments for a particular candidate together. It’s easy enough to use a different account or credit card to pay for advertising. As well, third party interest groups invest in promoting their favoured candidate, and they don’t always register as political advertisers. Other issues include:
- People may start pages on a given platform, and then delete them
- Candidates share pages with their constituency organization, or with one another
- Candidates have PR agencies working on their behalf, using page labels that don’t include the candidate’s name
- Platform transparency reports don’t include the geographical location of advertisers
In these ways, despite regulations that buyers of political advertising – whether candidate-based or issue-based – should be registered, such activities can often slip through the net.
KI Design’s experience shows that, by using the following three parameters while interrogating platforms’ transparency data, an EMB will get a better estimate of political financing – both of the actual money invested, and of who is spending it:
- Query a candidate’s own expenditure within their constituency;
- Query how much the candidate’s constituencyparty has spent;
- Query the platform for topics related to election issues: for example, farming subsidies in rural areas, pipeline creation, or tariffs on export of certain commodities. As platform transparency reports don’t include the geographical location of advertisers, queries should include multiple keywords to track spending in a particular location. As an example, if pipeline creation is an issue in that area, then by searching for pipeline-related keywords an EMB can discover who the payers are, and can see if they are registered. If findings show that money has been spent through other parties that aren’t registered, and are neither a political party, a candidate, or a registered lobby group – that’s a violation.
While an EMB won’t be able to get a complete picture of online political spending patterns from transparency reports, leveraged skillfully they can be a useful resource in an investigation.
We recommend that EMBs work with legislators to ensure that platforms include geographic location as part of their transparency reports. Furthermore, any page names, group names, or room names on platforms that are associated with a real entity, whether an individual or a corporation, should be made public.
The CLC advocates updating campaign finance regulation with “across-the-board rules for digital ad transparency.” In KI Design’s opinion, these rules should be clear and specific, ensuring that platforms report:
|WHO is spending money?|
|WHEN did the spending occur?|
|WHAT topics were spent on?|
Any new legislation should also mandate platforms to include obligatory post-mortem transparency reports: an enumeration of every single page/group/room that was advertised, and its association with a real entity (individual or registered corporation.) This would include pages that have been taken down.
Content on Telegram, WhatsApp, and WeChat poses a challenge for EMBs, as the data within them is not publicly available. We suggest that EMBs create a policy covering these platforms, indicating whether or not the EMB will:
- allow parties to launch a complaint based on data disseminated on these platforms,
- research the legality of monitoring darknet forums to track content on these platforms incognito
The prevalence of social media causes a number of political financing-related issues for EMBs:
- Bots present a particular challenge. Regulation of their use tends to be unclear or evolving, or both, and their reach continues to grow. Tracking and measuring the impact of bot advertising isn’t easy.
- Social media-based electoral advertising originating from outside national borders continues to increase.
- As detailed above, advertising on social media complicates overseeing compliance with political financing rules:
- Have candidates overspent the limit set within their jurisdiction, or under-reported their spending?
- Are any parties spending on political advertising without being registered?
Many EMBs will benefit from consultation around the possibilities of social media monitoring, and companies such as KI Design can advise and implement tools. There are no prefab solutions, as laws are in flux and vary by jurisdiction, but KI Design can pilot EMBs to understand the capacities monitoring offers, and the issues it can be utilized to address. By knowing what questions to ask, we can help you find the answers you need.
Part of a 5-part series on
Monitoring Online Discourse During An Election:
 Brendan Fischer, “New CLC Report Highlights Digital Transparency Loopholes in the 2020 Elections” (April 8, 2020), online at: https://campaignlegal.org/update/new-clc-report-highlights-digital-transparency-loopholes-2020-elections