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Elections 2024: Are you being micro-targeted?

By Kavisha Pillay

With the South African general election just a month away, we are reaching the peak of political campaigning in the country. Millions of rands are currently being spent on town halls, rallies, and advertising to persuade voters to cast their ballot for a particular party or candidate. 

Digital advertising is an increasingly prominent aspect of political campaigning, particularly on social media platforms where targeted adverts allow parties and candidates to reach specific demographics and engage with voters directly. Digital ads have revolutionised how information is disseminated, targeting people through highly personalised messaging.

Using advanced data analytics and behavioural tracking, companies, organisations and political parties can tailor adverts to specific audiences, based on age, location, interests, and browsing history - for instance, focusing on young urban professionals, retirees, or rural communities with tailored messages that address each group’s unique interests. This is called microtargeting - and in the context of elections, it can be quite dangerous. 

While those running these ad campaigns will argue that microtargeting offers a better return on their investment, the intended and unintended consequences can be to lock people into echo chambers, where individuals are only exposed to information which reinforces their existing beliefs and prejudices. Take for example the 2016 US election, where Russian-linked entities targeted political ads on social media platforms to specific voter segments to sway opinions on key issues or candidates. This microtargeting approach was intended to amplify political polarisation and influence voter behaviour - and it did. 

Analysing Meta’s Ad Library 

To increase transparency on digital advertising, following criticism and concern about the opaque nature of political adverts on its platforms, in 2019 Meta launched its Ad Library which catalogues all political ads running on Facebook and Instagram, and provides data on spending, demographics, and funding sources. 

We looked at various South African political parties’ spending on Meta ads in the last three months, to get an idea of their intended target markets and budgets.

Political Party

Amount Spent in 90 days

Democratic Alliance

R2 328 782.00

Freedom Front Plus

R245 527.00

Referendum Party

R158 528.00

GOOD Party

R78 849.00

Rise Mzansi

R49 492.00

Inkatha Freedom Party

R39 807.00

Build One South Africa

R37 640.00

African Christian Democratic Party

R28 839.00

Al Jama-Ah

R8 628.00

*Amounts calculated according to the total spend per advertiser in the last 90 days. 

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is the biggest digital ad spender by far! It has spent over R2-million on 799 digital adverts on Meta Platforms in the last three months, under its campaign theme #RescueSA. During this period, it has targeted audiences based on their location, increasingly focusing on people living in the North West province (specifically, Derby, Ventersdorp, Tlokwe,  City of Matlosana, and Kroondal) and Mpumalanga (Govan Mbeki District Municipality, Umjindi, Steve Tshwete Local Municipality, Mbombela, and Emalahleni)

The Freedom Front Plus (VF+) has spent just under a quarter of a million rand, with 39 digital ads over the last 90 days. It identified voters in the age group of 18-35 as its primary audience, with 98% of the party's ads being used to target this age category. The VF+ also microtargets its ads based on information it receives about audience interests. For example, people who have liked the Kyknet, Huisgenoot, and Afrikaans Is Groot pages on Facebook and Instagram, are likely to encounter VF+ adverts.  

Rise Mzansi, which has spent close to R50k on 23 adverts over the last three months, has only targeted women aged between 27-45. This specific microtargeting may align with the party’s policy manifesto which includes a commitment to tax breaks for single mothers. 

Unknown players influencing our elections 

Interestingly, the Meta Ad Library also provides insights into organisations which are not registered political parties, but are running extensive election-related adverts. Collectively, these six pages - Ask South Africa, Dear South Africa, Save Our South Africa, and Pledge South Africa, We Are The People, and Constitutional Hill TV, have spent close to half a million rand on election-related ads on Facebook and Instagram over the last 90 days. 

This is how they have been microtargeting voters: 

  • Ask South Africa - this page was created in May 2023, and has spent R233 167 on 19 adverts. All the adverts are targeted to people who live in the Northern Cape, with nine adverts specifically related to loadshedding. Ask SA identifies itself on Facebook as a ‘market research consultant’, and all of its ads have been paid for by the Freedom Advocacy Network - a project of the Institute for Race Relations. 

  • Constitutional Hill - this page should not be confused with Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. An analysis of its adverts shows no connection to the historic site. In 30 days, commencing from early April, it spent R114 081 on 29 adverts. One ad noted that “a vote for Gayton McKenzie’s PA is a vote for the ANC to enable corruption while people can barely afford food prices.” Additionally, some ads include the term: “The DA difference” - with a positive sentiment towards the Democratic Alliance.  

  • Save Our South Africa - over the last six weeks, Save Our South Africa, a page that was created in March 2024, ran 72 adverts at a cost of R99 004. Its website is opaque with no information about its funders or its employees. Under the “About Us”, Save Our South Africa claims that it is “not just some movement; we’re a community standing together to give our people what they deserve”. A scan of its adverts indicate that the group is concerned about education and policing. One advert claims: “12 000 yearly cases of school-related corruption. Take back our schools. #YourVoteCanSaveSA”. All of Save Our South Africa’s ads target women between 18 and 40 years old.  

  • Dear South Africa - this popular Facebook page, with over 200 000 likes, was created in 2018. A scan of the Dear South Africa website reveals it is a non-profit platform that encourages the public to “co-shape all government policies, amendments and proposals”. Dear South Africa boasts that it has “many successful campaigns” and has “amassed a considerably large active participant network of over 1 million individuals across the country and beyond.” The website does not provide any information about people who work at Dear South Africa, who its funders are, or where it is based. In the last 90 days, it spent R79 090 on 32 adverts. Some of its ads made the following false claims: “the frightening reality is that the IEC is now trying to take away your democratic right to vote for a party that will guarantee you that right to vote for a referendum on Cape independence.” According to the data, this advert reached between 125 000 and 150 000 people in the Western Cape. 

  • Pledge to Vote SA - this page has over 14 000 followers, and was created in January 2023. It’s run 37 ads in the last three months, costing R46 185. There is a high ad spend on groups aged 18-35 years old, who have shown interests online on issues relating to “elections”, “activism”, “voting”, “community issues”, and “social change”. Pledge South Africa has been running adverts to these targeted groups with a negative stance on BEE and the National Health Insurance - which are policy priorities of the current government. Some of its ads included the following messaging: “The National Health Insurance (NHI) is a ticking time bomb, threatening to nationalise your private health insurance, hospitals, and doctors. The NHI will compromise the health and wellbeing of you and your loved ones. Pledge your vote in the upcoming 2024 election to vote out the NHI.” Although the NHI Bill is controversial, claims that the NHI will “nationalise private health insurance” are factually incorrect. At the bottom of the About Us page on its website, in quite discreet fashion, Pledge to Vote SA is identified as an initiative of the Institute for Race Relations (as has Ask South Africa, above). 

  • We Are The People - this page was created in early April 2024, with adverts kicking off on 26 April. In a matter of days, R14 088 has been spent on advertising. We Are The People note that it is a “voluntary association formed to mobilise citizens to continuously participate in democracy”. The messaging in a recent video advert is strikingly similar to that of Rise Mzansi. The video features a segment about the economic pressures faced by single moms (a key policy issue for Rise Mzansi), states that “we need a new generation of leaders” (Rise’s main campaign theme is #WeNeedNewLeaders) and perhaps the most revealing aspect is the inclusion of the statement “Let’s vote for change, and to make 2024 our 1994” - a statement coined by Rise Mzansi. When analysing the micro-targeting data, We Are The People is targeting the exact same demographics as Rise Mzansi - women aged between 27-45 years old. The We Are The People website also does not disclose its funders. 

In each of the above case studies, none of the adverts in use directly encourage users to vote for a particular party. However, from the messaging used in the ads, especially in the case of Ask South Africa, Constitutional Hill, Pledge To Vote SA, and We Are The People, there are subtle and not so subtle attempts to persuade people to vote for certain political parties. The Institute for Race Relations, which is funding political ad campaigns for both Ask South Africa and Pledge to Vote SA, has alleged links to the DA. 

Non-profit organisations, community associations, think tanks, and lobbying groups are not barred from endorsing political parties and leaders. In our constitutional democracy, individuals and entities have a right to give their support to parties or persons that best align with their interests. However, the key to this is transparency and honesty. Using digital platforms to micro-target voters for political purposes without disclosing links to current political parties is not only unethical, but also undermines the tenets of our democracy. 

Preserving democracy in the age of digital advertising 

The data from Meta’s Ad Library illustrates the importance of the electorate being aware of how they are being targeted! Different strategies are being employed in political advertising, in order to micro-target voters and persuade them to vote in particular ways. In this light, voters have to be sceptical and questioning of the information that they encounter online. Always verify facts, question the intentions behind the ads that you are seeing, and ask why you may have been targeted to see those ads.

The transparency measures introduced by platforms like Meta's Ad Library are a positive step, but more regulation is needed to ensure fair practices. This includes stronger oversight of political ad funding, and enforcing transparency requirements on political parties and those linked to them. Ultimately, protecting the integrity of elections in the digital era demands vigilance from voters, regulators, and platforms alike, ensuring that technology serves democratic values, and does not subvert them.

Author's note: As stated above, I relied solely on the Meta Ad Library to conduct this analysis. On 29 April I was temporarily blocked by Meta from accessing the library due to allegedly “misusing this feature by going too fast”. This is a completely bizarre reason to block a user’s access. At the time of publication of this piece, I am still locked out of the library. 

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