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UK general election puts Facebook's political ads policy to the test

The U.K.'s first general election since Facebook Inc. launched a database of political ads on the site shows the three main parties have very different social media strategies.

The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats spent a total of almost £2.3 million since Facebook launched the Ad Library in October 2018, according to data collected by S&P Global Market Intelligence. Nearly half of this was spent by the Liberal Democrats, which has by far the smallest presence in the House of Commons, with 21 members of Parliament, compared to the Conservatives and Labour, with 298 and 243, respectively. Facebook's original ad archive included political or policy ads. The company expanded it to include all active ads as well as inactive political and issue ads in March.

Political ads make up a tiny fraction of Facebook's revenues but attract considerable scrutiny. A day after the data was collected, researchers claimed that ads were disappearing from Facebook's Ad Library. According to reports, some ads previously visible could only be found by providing an identification number. Facebook said it was investigating the matter.

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Unlike some of its social media peers, Facebook allows targeted political ads. Its Ad Library details the viewers of each ad by gender, age group and location. All three political parties surveyed targeted ads according to age and gender, according to data collected by S&P Global Market Intelligence. Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC recently announced restrictions on political ad targeting, while Twitter Inc. banned all political ads.

Facebook's ads policy states that ads can be run about social issues, elections and politics "provided that the advertiser complies with all applicable laws and the [identity] authorization process required by Facebook." The platform may restrict such ads "where appropriate." It does not fact-check posts by individual candidates, although it does prevent them from posting material that has already been proven false.

U.K. advertisers must display a disclaimer with the ad that accurately represents the name of the entity or person responsible for it. According to the Ad Library, the Liberal Democrats ran £6,441 worth of ads without the necessary disclaimer, the highest of the three main parties. The Conservatives and Labour failed to run a disclaimer on £1,901 and £1,989 worth of ads, respectively.

Data collected by S&P Global Market Intelligence shows that despite spending the least of the three main political parties, the Conservatives had the most advertisements on Facebook between the Ad Library's launch and Dec. 5, at about 17,000, compared to Labour's 700 and the Liberal Democrats' 7,700. A last-minute preelection push saw this reach about 20,000 for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and about 3,000 for Labour, as of Dec. 11.

The Liberal Democrats' and Conservatives' Facebook ads mention Brexit in 65% and 44% of ads, respectively, though with polar opposite messaging. The Conservatives' slogan is "Get Brexit Done," while the Liberal Democrats is the only mainstream party campaigning to stop the U.K.'s exit from the European Union.

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