Political parties waging an increasingly vicious election war on Facebook have been warned by Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham not to break strict data protection laws.
With an estimated 60% of the UK population having a Facebook account, parties increasingly see it as one of the most important means by which to communicate with voters.
But Ms Denham has launched an investigation after becoming concerned that personal data may be misused by parties in a bid to gain electoral advantage. Sending individual messages to voters based on analysing their use of social media could, she believes, contravene the Data Protection Act (DPA).
The two main parties are expected to spend around £1m each during the 2017 general election by exploiting Facebook’s ability to target specific voter groups with tailored video and text messaging.
The Conservatives have launched direct digital attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, taking advantage of his perceived unpopularity. He appears in 10 out of 10 Facebook advertisements sent out by Conservative Central Office. In nine of the 10 he is contrasted unfavourably with Theresa May.
One 17-second video, that has had more than 200,000 views, shows May saying in a speech that the Conservatives are “always committed to a strong national defence and supporting the finest armed forces known to man”, while there are two clips of Corbyn saying: “Close down Nato” and then: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every politician around the world did what the people of Costa Rica have done and abolished their army?”
An analysis by the Press Association, however, suggests that in the past week Labour messages to Facebook accounts have received more shares and likes than material from the Conservatives.
The Conservative Party had previously averaged 105 more likes or loves per post on Facebook than Labour and Theresa May had averaged 500 shares per post more than Jeremy Corbyn on Facebook.
(Photo: Getty Images Europe)
But the latest data shows Labour overtook the Tories on all fronts, with users more likely to like and share posts from Labour and Jeremy Corbyn than the Conservatives and Theresa May on average.
Labour averaged 112 more positive reactions per post on Facebook over the period measured while Mr Corbyn averaged more than 1,000 extra shares per post.
The early weeks of the campaign saw the two main parties drawing clear battle lines in terms of how they define the election. Whereas the Conservative Party sought to pitch the election as a clash of personalities between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit Labour preferred to focus on policy issues, such as healthcare, policing and education.
However, Labour’s messaging over the last week has become more focused and aggressive, according to the analysis, with the number of posts which mention the campaign slogan “for the many” increasing by 4% on Facebook and 9% on Twitter.
Labour posts about policy issues increased slightly from 20% of the total to 24% and posts mentioning either of the party leaders also rose marginally from 19% to 22%.
But neither the Labour Party nor Jeremy Corbyn mentioned Brexit in their posts on social media at any point across the week.
By contrast the Conservative Party increased its messaging around Brexit from 20% of posts across Facebook and Twitter to almost a third (30%).
Mentions of either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn by the Conservatives increased from 75% to more than four out of every five posts (84%) across Facebook and Twitter.
(Photo: Publicity picture)
With an ever-increasing number of people active on social media, party leaders are each expected to appear on Facebook Live before the election to take questions from voters.
Mrs May made her first appearance on Facebook Live on Monday but Mr Corbyn ambushed the broadcast with a question, challenging the Prime Minister to a live debate.
The clip he posted of the intervention to his Facebook page was liked almost 60,000 times – more than any post by any other party or leader on Facebook since the election was called on April 18.
Footage of a voter challenging Mrs May over disability benefits also proved popular for Labour, as did video of a TV broadcast filmed by Ken Loach, the manifesto launch and footage of the Labour leader meeting grime music star Jme.
Messages attacking Labour or Mr Corbyn still proved to be the most popular for the Conservatives.
Labour’s top Facebook post, featuring Ken Loach’s short film about Jeremy Corbyn, was shared more than 10,000 times.
A picture attacking Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell was the most-shared post by the Conservatives’ Facebook page, with more than 6,000 shares.
A briefing note released by the Information Commissioner’s office states: “The big data revolution has made available new and powerful technical means to analyse extremely large and varied datasets. These can include traditional datasets such as the electoral register but also information which people have made publicly accessible on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
“Research and profiling carried out by and on behalf of political parties can now benefit from these advanced analytical tools. The outputs may be used to understand general trends in the electorate, or to find and influence potential voters.
“Whatever the purpose of the processing, it is subject to the DPA if it involves data from which living individuals can be identified. This brings with it duties for the party commissioning the analytics and rights for the individuals to whom the data relates.”
This includes the duty to tell people how their data is being used.
The note states: “While people might expect that the electoral register is used for election campaigns they may well not be aware of how other data about them can be used and combined in complex analytics.
“If a political organisation is collecting data directly from people, eg via a website, or obtains it from another source, it has to tell them what it is going to do with the data.
“In the case of data obtained from another source the organisation may make the information available in other ways, eg on its website, if contacting individuals directly would involve disproportionate effort.
“It cannot simply choose to say nothing and the possible complexity of the analytics is not an excuse for ignoring this requirement.”