Facebook is a small threat for now, but what about next time?

We know that Facebook had a big impact during the election, with left-wing news websites managing to play the Facebook algorithm far better than the right wing ones did, but something I saw during the last week of the campaign worried me more than all that.

I know, of course, that both left and right are happy to make things up (or, perhaps, over-simplify things) about their opposition in order to be more convincing, particularly during an election and it’s more common (for me at least) to see the left doing this.

It might be because there are more of ‘them’ online, because Tories generally aren’t as loud about being Tories, or because of the people I follow and see, but I pretty much expect that the Internet will tell me the Tories have done bad things with power and the ‘left’ have a dodgy past, are hypocrites and so on.

What I didn’t expect to see was something like the Conservative Voters for Teresa May pages.

There’s the twitter accounts dedicated to memes and ‘well-sourced’ graphics proving that the Tories are the cause of all evil and there was the ‘fake’ Conservative website, pitched as a ‘joke’ but most certainly counting as serious campaigning in my book, saying it was uncovering “Tory Lies” by mocking their manifesto.

But these are both obvious that their true aim is to get you to vote for someone else, even if how exactly they’re funded might be a bit more hidden for me.

Conservative Voters for Teresa May on Facebook and Twitter isn’t anything like that. The pages use Tory-style graphics and messaging to convey negative messages about the party, pitched as campaigning for them.

Only… with a few seconds of scrutiny, the whole thing feels a bit like the projection of what an ardent Corbynista thinks happens inside the head of a Conservative voter rather than something serious.

The posts focus on many of Labour’s key attack messages: the Tories will prioritise good education for the rich and cut other school’s budgets, privatise the NHS because it worked well for the railways, raise taxes for everyone (because the rich already pay enough) and so on.

It could be a joke site, of course, but if it is then it’s doing a pretty terrible job, and the descriptions make clear it’s supposed to be a group of Conservative supporters running it. And it could well be, but for how I came across it at all.

About 4 days before the election, my feed repeatedly showed me sponsored posts from the page. Yes, someone had paid for me to see the posts.

Now, as many comms professionals will know from their own experience, my Facebook profile isn’t really representative of me at all. I follow pages I wouldn’t aside from for work, visit posts that criticise the people I work for and generally cause Facebook a great deal of confusion in working out what I like and who I am.

So while I do know that someone had paid to show me an ad for the page, what I don’t know is whether I was being targeted as a potential Tory or as an on-side Corbynista. Either way the opaque nature of what was being posted worries me.

This actual page is not a big thing at all: it’s gathered a relativley insignificant 1,400 Facebook followers, and a rather lacklustre 23 on Twitter – but it’s a proof of concept which could be easily be something bigger next time round.

What I’ve been wondering is whether this was an exercise in mockery or was it intended as a final shove over the line for people who might’ve been teetering on the edge of supporting Labour?

The comments on the pages, mocking the Tory lines, suggest it’s the latter – but then so do most of the comments on official Conservative social media properties, so it’s really hard to tell.

Facebook sharing of shaky partisan stories might be hard for the right-wing media to compete against, mock sites might be confusing a very small number of voters and enforcing the spirit of local spending rules on local campaigning a big challenge for the Electoral Comisssion, but what if pages like this were set up on a bigger scale next time?

Could this influence a big number of people? This style of messaging is probably never going to convert a Tory to vote Labour (it’s too obvious), but having both sides of the argument could very well help keep those who aren’t sure – but might have previously voted not-Tory – on side.

It’s almost like a virtual reality echo chamber, affirming what people think – even when it’s not actually been said – and I think it’s quite worrying.

Of course it also could be real…

The images throughout this post are taken from the page I’ve written about, and so are of course owned by whoever the authors are.

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