Just over a week after the U.S. elections, Twitter has offered a breakdown of some of its efforts to label misleading tweets. The site says that from October 27 to November 11, it labeled some 300,000 tweets as part of its Civic Integrity Policy. That amounts to around 0.2% of the total number of election-related tweets sent during that two-week period.
Of course, not all Twitter warnings are created equal. Only 456 of those included a warning that covered the text and limited user engagement, disabling retweets, replies and likes. That specific warning did go a ways toward limited engagement, with around three-fourths of those who encountered the tweets seeing the obscured texts (by clicking through the warning). Quote tweets for those so labeled decreased by around 29%, according to Twitter’s figures.
The president of the United States received a disproportionate number of those labels, as The New York Times notes that just over a third of Trump’s tweets between November 3 and 6 were hit with such a warning. The end of the election (insofar as the election has actually ended, I suppose) appears to have slowed the site’s response time somewhat, though Trump continues to get flagged, as he continues to devote a majority of his feed to disputing the election results confirmed by nearly every major news outlet.
His latest tweet as of this writing has been labeled disputed, but not hidden, as Trump repeats claims against voting machine maker, Dominion. “We also want to be very clear that we do not see our job as done,” Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour wrote. “Our work here continues and our teams are learning and improving how we address these challenges.”
Twitter and other social media sites were subject to intense scrutiny following the 2016 election for the roles the platforms played in the spread of misinformation. Twitter sought to address the issue by tweaking recommendations and retweets, as well as individually labeling tweets that violate its policies.
Earlier today, YouTube defended its decision to keep controversial election-related videos, noting, “Like other companies, we’re allowing these videos because discussion of election results & the process of counting votes is allowed on YT. These videos are not being surfaced or recommended in any prominent way.”
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.
Feed: All Latest
Facebook and Instagram are running notifications in their respective apps informing U.S. users that the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election has not yet been determined. In large pop-ups appearing at the top of the Facebook and Instagram News Feeds, the notification states that “Votes Are Being Counted” and directs users to other in-app election resources.
Both apps are using the same language for their respective notifications:
“The winner of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election has not been projected yet. See more updates and learn what to expect as the election process continues.”
Critically, Facebook and Instagram have also added a timestamp to the notification to indicate its recency. As of November 4 at 9:57 a.m. EST, for example, the notification read that it was last updated at 9:00 a.m. EST.
The addition of a timestamp is useful not only because election results are still being counted — and will be for days to come, most likely — but also because President Trump prematurely claimed election victory early Wednesday morning before all votes were counted.
Facebook tells TechCrunch it began showing these notifications at the top of Facebook and Instagram feeds shortly after Trump posted to Facebook that he had won. The company also began labeling posts from both Trump and Vice President Biden in accordance with the policies it shared ahead of Election Day, it says.
On Facebook, Trump’s message earned itself a label that reminded users that election night results and final results may differ, but Facebook didn’t otherwise restrict the post.
As we noted at the time of the labeling, Facebook had begun displaying the notifications about there being no projected winner.
Having a timestamp on these posts is also important in the case that either app faces any sort of caching issues that would allow users to see out-of-date data, temporarily, until the app was refreshed.
This was an issue on Instagram yesterday, November 3, when a caching issue led to some users seeing a notification that read, vaguely, “Tomorrow is Election Day,” when in fact Election Day had already arrived.
Similarly, some users may not immediately see the notification appearing at the top of their Feed on Facebook or Instagram until their app refreshes. But there are no widespread complaints about this sort of issue today.
Ballot measures were approved in California to restrict commercial use of user data and in Michigan to require warrants for searches of electronic information.
Feed: All Latest
On the eve on the 2020 U.S. election, tensions are running high.
The good news? 2020 isn’t 2016. Social networks are way better prepared to handle a wide array of complex, dangerous or otherwise ambiguous Election Day scenarios.
The bad news: 2020 is its own beast, one that’s unleashed a nightmare health scenario on a divided nation that’s even more susceptible now to misinformation, hyper-partisanship and dangerous ideas moving from the fringe to the center than it was four years ago.
The U.S. was caught off guard by foreign interference in the 2016 election, but shocking a nation that’s spent the last eight months expecting a convergence of worst-case scenarios won’t be so easy.
Social platforms have braced for the 2020 election in a way they didn’t in 2016. Here’s what they’re worried about and the critical lessons from the last four years that they’ll bring to bear.
Contested election results
President Trump has repeatedly signaled that he won’t accept the results of the election in the case that he loses — a shocking threat that could imperil American democracy, but one social platforms have been tracking closely. Trump’s erratic, often rule-bending behavior on social networks in recent months has served as a kind of stress test, allowing those platforms to game out different scenarios for the election.
Facebook and Twitter in particular have laid out detailed plans about what happens if the results of the election aren’t immediately clear or if a candidate refuses to accept official results once they’re tallied.
On election night, Facebook will pin a message to the top of both Facebook and Instagram telling users that vote counting is still underway. When authoritative results are in, Facebook will change those messages to reflect the official results. Importantly, U.S. election results might not be clear on election night or for some days afterward, a potential outcome for which Facebook and other social networks are bracing.
If a candidate declared victory prematurely, Facebook doesn’t say it will remove those claims, but it will pair them with its message that there’s no official result and voting is still underway.
Twitter released its plans for handling election results two months ago, explaining that it will either remove or attach a warning label to premature claims of victory before authoritative election results are in. The company also explicitly stated that it will act against any tweets “inciting unlawful conduct to prevent a peaceful transfer of power or orderly succession,” a shocking rule to have to articulate, but a necessary one in 2020.
On Monday, Twitter elaborated on its policy, saying that it would focus on labeling misleading tweets about the presidential election and other contested races. The company released a sample image of a label it would append, showing a warning stating that “this tweet is sharing inaccurate information.”
We may label Tweets, starting on election night, that make claims about election results before they’re officially called.
We’ll be prioritizing the presidential election and other highly contested races where there may be significant issues with misleading information. pic.twitter.com/BExhZdVMnB
— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) November 2, 2020
Last week, the company also began showing users large misinformation warnings at the top of their feeds. The messages told users that they “might encounter misleading information” about mail-in voting and also cautioned them that election results may not be immediately known.
According to Twitter, users who try to share tweets with misleading election-related misinformation will see a pop-up pointing them to vetted information and forcing them to click through a warning before sharing. Twitter also says it will act on any “disputed claims” that might cast doubt on voting, including “unverified information about election rigging, ballot tampering, vote tallying, or certification of election results.”
One other major change that many users probably already noticed is Twitter’s decision to disable retweets. Users can still retweet by clicking through a pop-up page, but Twitter made the change to encourage people to quote retweet instead. The effort to slow down the spread of misinformation was striking, and Twitter said it will stay in place through the end of election week, at least.
YouTube didn’t go into similar detail about its decision making, but the company previously said it will put an “informational” label on search results related to the election and below election-related videos. The label warns users that “results may not be final” and points them to the company’s election info hub.
This is one area where social networks have made big strides. After Russian disinformation took root on social platforms four years ago, those companies now coordinate with one another and the government about the threats they’re seeing.
In the aftermath of 2016, Facebook eventually woke up to the idea that its platform could be leveraged to scale social ills like hate and misinformation. Its scorecard is uneven, but its actions against foreign disinformation have been robust, reducing that threat considerably.
A repeat of the same concerns from 2016 is unlikely. Facebook made aggressive efforts to find foreign coordinated disinformation campaigns across its platforms, and it publishes what it finds regularly and with little delay. But in 2020, the biggest concerns are coming from within the country — not without.
Most foreign information operations have been small so far, failing to gain much traction. Last month, Facebook removed a network of fake accounts connected to Iran. The operation was small and failed to generate much traction, but it shows that U.S. adversaries are still interested in trying out the tactic.
Misleading political ads
To address concerns around election misinformation in ads, Facebook opted for a temporary political ad blackout, starting at 12 a.m. PT on November 4 and continuing until the company deems it safe to toggle them back on. Facebook hasn’t accepted any new political ads since October 27 and previously said it won’t accept any ads that delegitimize the results of the election. Google will also pause election-related ads after polls close Tuesday.
Facebook has made a number of big changes to political ads since 2016, when Russia bought Facebook ads to meddle with U.S. politics. Political ads on the platform are subject to more scrutiny and much more transparency now and Facebook’s ad library emerged as an exemplary tool that allows anyone to see what ads have been published, who bought them and how much they spent.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter’s way of dealing with political advertising was cutting it off entirely. The company announced the change a year ago and hasn’t looked back since. TikTok also opted to disallow political ads.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…
— jack (@jack) October 30, 2019
Politically motivated violence is a big worry this week in the U.S. — a concern that shows just how tense the situation has grown under four years of Trump. Leading into Tuesday, the president has repeatedly made false claims of voter fraud and encouraged his followers to engage in voter intimidation, a threat Facebook was clued into enough that it made a policy prohibiting “militarized” language around poll watching.
Facebook made a number of other meaningful recent changes, like banning the dangerous pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon and militias that use the platform to organize, though those efforts have come very late in the game.
Facebook was widely criticized for its inaction around a Trump post warning “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during racial justice protests earlier this year, but its recent posture suggests similar posts might be taken more seriously now. We’ll be watching how Facebook handles emerging threats of violence this week.
Its recent decisive moves against extremism are important, but the platform has long incubated groups that use the company’s networking and event tools to come together for potential real-world violence. Even if they aren’t allowed on the platform any longer, many of those groups got organized and then moved their networks onto alternative social networks and private channels. Still, making it more difficult to organize violence on mainstream social networks is a big step in the right direction.
Twitter also addressed the potential threat of election-related violence in advance, noting that it may add warnings or require users to remove any tweets “inciting interference with the election” or encouraging violence.
Platform policy shifts in 2020
Facebook is the biggest online arena where U.S. political life plays out. While a similar number of Americans watch videos on YouTube, Facebook is where they go to duke it out over candidates, share news stories (some legitimate, some not) and generally express themselves politically. It’s a tinderbox in normal times — and 2020 is far from normal.
While Facebook acted against foreign threats quickly after 2016, the company dragged its feet on platform changes that could be perceived as politically motivated — a hesitation that backfired by incubating dangerous extremists and allowing many kinds of misinformation, particularly on the far-right, to survive and thrive.
In spite of Facebook’s lingering misguided political fears, there are reasons to be hopeful that the company might avert election-related catastrophes.
Whether it was inspired by the threat of a contested election, federal antitrust action or a possible Biden presidency, Facebook has signaled a shift to more thoughtful moderation with a flurry of recent policy enforcement decisions. An accompanying flurry of election-focused podcast and television ads suggests Facebook is worried about public perception too — and it should be.
Twitter’s plan for the election has been well-communicated and detailed. In 2020, the company treats its policy decisions with more transparency, communicates them in real time and isn’t afraid to admit to mistakes. The relatively small social network plays an outsized role in publishing political content that’s amplified elsewhere, so the choices it makes are critical for countering misinformation and extremism.
The companies that host and amplify online political conversation have learned some major lessons since 2016 — mostly the hard way. Let’s just hope it was enough to help them guide their roiling platforms through one of the most fraught moments in modern U.S. history.
It was an active week in the technology world broadly, with big news from Facebook and Twitter and Apple. But past the headline-grabbing noise, there was a steady drumbeat of bullish news for unicorns, or private companies worth $ 1 billion or more.
A bullish week for unicorns
The Exchange spent a good chunk of the week looking into different stories from unicorns, or companies that will soon fit the bill, and it’s surprising to see how much positive financial news there was on tap even past what we got to write about.
Databricks, for example, disclosed a grip of financial data to TechCrunch ahead of regular publication, including the fact that it grew its annual run rate (not ARR) to $ 350 million by the end of Q3 2020, up from $ 200 million in Q2 2019. It’s essentially IPO ready, but is not hurrying to the public markets.
Sticking to our theme, Calm wants more money for a huge new valuation, perhaps as high as $ 2.2 billion which is not a surprise. That’s more good unicorn news. As was the report that “India’s Razorpay [became a] unicorn after its new $ 100 million funding round” that came out this week.
Razorpay is only one of a number of Indian startups that have become unicorns during COVID-19. (And here’s another digest out this week concerning a half-dozen startups that became unicorns “amidst the pandemic.”)
There was enough good unicorn news lately that we’ve lost track of it all. Things like Seismic raising $ 92 million, pushing its valuation up to $ 1.6 billion from a few weeks ago. How did that get lost in the mix?
All this matters because while the IPO market has captured much attention in the last quarter or so, the unicorn world has not sat still. Indeed, it feels that unicorn VC activity is the highest we’ve seen since 2019.
And, as we’ll see in just a moment, the grist for the unicorn mill is getting refilled as we speak. So, expect more of the same until something material breaks our current investing and exit pattern.
What do unicorns eat? Cash. And many, many VCs raised cash in the last seven days.
A partial list follows. It could be that investors are looking to lock in new funds before the election and whatever chaos may ensue. So, in no particular order, here’s who is newly flush:
- $ 450 million for OpenView, $ 800 million for Canaan, $ 840 million for True Ventures, $ 950 million for Lead Edge Capital
- Something called Benson Capital Partners has put together a $ 50 million fund. Gayle Benson, for whom the firm is named, owns several New Orleans sports teams, per Forbes.
- Plus Venture Capital, built by two former 500 Startups Mena investors according to fundsglobalMENA, has raised $ 60 million.
- First Round is looking for $ 220 million, former Google exec Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures is looking for a billion, while Khosla wants a bit more.
All that capital needs to go to work, which means lots more rounds for many, many startups. The Exchange also caught up with a somewhat new firm this week: Race Capital. Helmed by Alfred Chuang, formerly or BEA who is an angel investor now in charge of his own fund, the firm has $ 50 million to invest.
Sticking to private investments into startups for the moment, quite a lot happened this week that we need to know more about. Like API-powered Argyle raising $ 20 million from Bain Capital Ventures for what FinLedger calls “unlocking and democratizing access to employment records.” TechCrunch is currently tracking the progress of API-led startups.
On the fintech side of things, M1 Finance raised $ 45 million for its consumer fintech platform in a Series C, while another roboadvisor, Wealthsimple, raised $ 87 million, becoming a unicorn at the same time. And while we’re in the fintech bucket, Stripe dropped $ 200 million this week for Nigerian startup Paystack. We need to pay more attention to the African startup scene. On the smaller end of fintech, Alpaca raised $ 10 million more to help other companies become Robinhood.
A few other notes before we change tack. Kahoot raised $ 215 million due to a boom in remote education, another trend that is inescapable in 2020 as part of the larger edtech boom (our own Natasha Mascarenhas has more).
Turning from the private market to the public, we have to touch on SPACs for just a moment. The Exchange got on the phone this week with Toby Russell from Shift, which is now a public company, trading after it merged with a SPAC, namely Insurance Acquisition Corp. Early trading is only going so well, but the CEO outlined for us precisely why he pursued a SPAC, which was actually interesting:
- Shift could have gone public via an IPO, Russell said, but prioritized a SPAC-led debut because his firm wanted to optimize for a capital raise to keep the company growing.
- How so? The private investment in public equity (PIPE) that the SPAC option came with ensured that Shift would have hundreds of millions in cash.
- Shift also wanted to minimize what the CEO described as market risk. A SPAC deal could happen regardless of what the broader markets were up to. And as the company made the choice to debut via a SPAC in April, some caution, we reckon, may have made some sense.
So now Shift is public and newly capitalized. Let’s see what happens to its shares as it gets into the groove of reporting quarterly. (Obviously, if it flounders, it’s a bad mark for SPACs, but, conversely, successful trading could lead to a bit more momentum to SPAC-mageddon.)
A few more things and we’re done. Unicorn exits had a good week. First, Datto’s IPO continues to move forward. It set an initial price this week, which could value it above $ 4 billion. Also this week, Roblox announced that it has filed to go public, albeit privately. It’s worth billions as well. And finally, DoubleVerify is looking to go public for as much as $ 5 billion early next year.
Not all liquidity comes via the public markets, as we saw this week’s Twilio purchase of Segment, a deal that The Exchange dug into to find out if it was well-priced or not.
Various and Sundry
We’re running long naturally, so here are just a few quick things to add to your weekend mental tea-and-coffee reading!
- This Operator Collective + @BLCKVC + @SalesforceVC mashup caught our attention.
- Accel has notes here on the EU startup scene, especially its later stages.
- Here’s a TechCrunch piece we helped put together that digs into the current state of media startups. It’s fun!
- Bytedance charts for your education and entertainment.
- Here’s where you can track the growth of DuckDuckGo as it takes on Google and Bing.
- Equity was a bundle of fun this week, so make sure to tune in if you have 30 minutes of free time.
Eager to avoid a repeat of its disastrous role as a super-spreader of misinformation during the 2016 election cycle, Facebook is getting its ducks in a row.
Following an announcement earlier this summer, the company is now launching a voting information hub that will centralize election resources for U.S. users and ideally inoculate at least some of them against the platform’s ongoing misinformation epidemic.
The voting information center will appear in the menu on both Facebook and Instagram. As part of the same effort, Facebook will also target U.S. users with notifications based on location and age, displaying relevant information about voting in their state. The info center will help users check their state-specific vote-by-mail options, request mail-in ballots and provide voting-related deadlines.
Facebook is also expanding the labels it uses to attach verified election resources to posts by political figures. The labels will now appear on voting-related posts from all users across its main platform and Instagram, a way for the platform to avoid taking actions against specific political figures while still directing its users toward verified information about U.S. elections.
Along with other facets of its pre-election push, Facebook will roll previously-announced “voting alerts,” a feature that will allow state election officials to communicate election-related updates to users through the platform. “This will be increasingly critical as we get closer to the election, with potential late-breaking changes to the voting process that could impact voters,” Facebook Vice President of Product Management and Social Impact Naomi Gleit wrote in a blog post about the feature. According to the company, voting alerts will only be available to government accounts and not personal pages belonging to state or local election administrators.
The company cites the complexity of conducting state elections in the midst of the pandemic in its decision to launch the info center, which is also modeled after the COVID-19 info center that it created in the early days of the crisis. While the COVID-19 info hub initially appeared at the top of users’ Facebook feeds, it’s now only surfaced in searches related to the virus.
Election night nightmare
Uncomfortable as it is with the idea, Facebook seems to be aware that it could very well become the “arbiter of truth” on election night. With 2020’s unprecedented circumstances leading to a record number of ballots cast through the mail, it’s possible that the election’s outcome could be delayed or otherwise confusing. Without clear cut results, conspiracy theories, opportunism and other forms of misinformation are likely to explode on social platforms — a nightmare scenario that social networks seem to be preemptively dreading.
“A prolonged ballot process has the potential to be exploited in order to sow distrust in the election outcome,” Gleit wrote in Facebook’s post detailing the election tools.
The company was one of nine tech companies that met with federal officials on Wednesday to discuss how they will handle concerns around misinformation on the platforms around election day.
Joint industry statement on ongoing election security collaboration between tech companies and USG agencies tasked with protecting the integrity of the election pic.twitter.com/c1fHERHWtw
— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) August 12, 2020
The group of companies now includes Facebook, Google, Reddit, Twitter, Microsoft, Pinterest, Verizon Media, Linkedin and the Wikimedia Foundation. Some of the group’s members had met previously to discuss efforts ahead of U.S. elections, but the expanded coalition of companies formally working with federal officials to prepare for the U.S. election appears to be new.
Three-quarters of Americans lack confidence in tech companies’ ability to fight election interference
A significant majority of Americans have lost faith in tech companies’ ability to prevent the misuse of their platforms to influence the 2020 presidential election, according to a new study from Pew Research Center, released today. The study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) don’t believe platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google will be able to prevent election interference. What’s more, this sentiment is felt by both political parties evenly.
Pew says that nearly identical shares of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (76%) and Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (74%) have little or no confidence in technology companies’ ability to prevent their platforms’ misuse with regard to election interference.
And yet, 78% of Americans believe it’s tech companies’ job to do so. Slightly more Democrats (81%) took this position, compared with Republicans (75%).
While Americans had similar negative feelings about platforms’ misuse ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, their lack of confidence has gotten even worse over the past year. As of January 2020, 74% of Americans report having little confidence in the tech companies, compared with 66% back in September 2018. For Democrats, the decline in trust is even greater, with 74% today feeling “not too” confident or “not at all” confident, compared with 62% in September 2018. Republican sentiment has declined somewhat during this same time, as well, with 72% expressing a lack of confidence in 2018, compared with 76% today.
Even among those who believe the tech companies are capable of handling election interference, very few (5%) Americans feel “very” confident in their capabilities. Most of the optimists see the challenge as difficult and complex, with 20% saying they feel only “somewhat” confident.
Across age groups, both the lack of confidence in tech companies and a desire for accountability increase with age. For example, 31% of those 18 to 29 feel at least somewhat confident in tech companies’ abilities, versus just 20% of those 65 and older. Similarly, 74% of youngest adults believe the companies should be responsible for platform misuse, compared with 88% of the 65-and-up crowd.
Given the increased negativity felt across the board on both sides of the aisle, it would have been interesting to see Pew update its 2018 survey that looked at other areas of concern Republicans and Democrats had with tech platforms. The older study found that Republicans were more likely to feel social media platforms favored liberal views while Democrats were more heavily in favor of regulation and restricting false information.
Issues around election interference aren’t just limited to the U.S., of course. But news of Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics in particular — which involved every major social media platform — has helped to shape Americans’ poor opinion of tech companies and their ability to prevent misuse. The problem continues today, as Russia is being called out again for trying to intervene in the 2020 elections, according to several reports. At present, Russia’s focus is on aiding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in order to interfere with the Democratic primary, the reports said.
Meanwhile, many of the same vulnerabilities that Russia exploited during the 2016 elections remain, including the platforms’ ability to quickly spread fake news, for example. Russia is also working around blocks the tech companies have erected in an attempt to keep Russian meddling at bay. One report from The NYT said Russian hackers and trolls were now better at covering their tracks and were even paying Americans to set up Facebook pages to get around Facebook’s ban on foreigners buying political ads.
Pew’s report doesn’t get into any details as to why Americans have lost so much trust in tech companies since the last election, but it’s likely more than just the fallout from election interference alone. Five years ago, tech companies were viewed largely as having a positive impact on the U.S., Pew had once reported. But Americans no longer feel as they did, and now only around half of U.S. adults believe the companies are having a positive impact.
More Americans are becoming aware of how easily these massive platforms can be exploited and how serious the ramifications of those exploits have become across a number of areas, including personal privacy. It’s not surprising, then, that user sentiment around how well tech companies are capable of preventing election interference has declined, too, along with all the rest.
The UK goes to the polls this week and the governing Conservatives have already made headlines for their online activities. Luke Richards dives into the political battleground that is the Google SERPs – and provides his analysis of the manifesto promises relevant to the digital business community.
As the UK heads towards its third general election in four years, the two main parties – Conservatives and Labour – both seem to agree that investment in digital technologies is crucial to tackling challenges within the economy, the environment, and the country’s working relationship with the rest of the world after Brexit.
Both parties have also invested a significant amount of their marketing budgets in their digital campaigns.
These past few weeks we’ve seen examples of good and downright poor practice when it comes to search engine marketing. We’ve seen varying success in search visibility, online sentiment, and traffic. And the content of the manifestos themselves – for a digital/tech business audience – makes for fascinating reading in light of the challenges I’ve mentioned above.
Here is my analysis.
Search visibility of the manifestos
We are massively lucky in the UK with the amount of transparency and information at our fingertips as we decide who to vote for in elections.
There are bad actors, as we will discover later, but sites such as They Work For You, Vote For Policies, and The Political Compass all help to separate the quality content from the noise. And with just a couple of clicks, we can have immediate access to any manifesto.
Even before we’ve clicked through to the Conservatives’ manifesto landing page, we already know what the party’s central plan is – should they command a majority in the next parliament: “to get Brexit done.”
The “get Brexit done” mantra is one that is repeated countless times in the manifesto itself. I’d expected that the Conservative SEO team would be looking to get some visibility for this as a keyphrase. But a quick search for this finds the domain languishing only on page two of Google’s SERPs amid much negative press critical of this populist sloganeering.
Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats’ (a right-wing pro-Europe party) are targeting this key phrase as part of their paid search campaign – with their sponsored ads appear in position zero of the SERPs.
Beyond this, there isn’t much more to the search result save for the “vote conservative” call-to-action in the title and the URL. It’s notable for its brevity, leaving much of the rest of the SERPs open to be filled by positive and negative press, including two articles from The Daily Telegraph (a newspaper which previously employed Conservative leader Boris Johnson) and a well-ranked piece by Prospect magazine describing the party as a “threat to human rights”.
At first glance, the Labour party has adhered much better to onsite SEO best practice.
Their site links are well-served by Google. They command much of the SERP real estate and appear very useful to the user.
The choice for site links is a little surprising. The link to the “Accessible Manifesto” is a nice touch – showing consideration to web users who have difficulty reading the text. But the other links don’t really relate directly to the key policy points in the document itself such as their Green Industrial Revolution and National Education Service.
The closest the Labour search result has to a call-to-action is – the “be part of our movement – with your email address…” element, but it isn’t massively compelling. Another misstep is that the PDF for Labour’s 2015 manifesto is still live and ranking well in position four of SERPs, which could quite easily confuse and frustrate users.
Sentiment elsewhere in the SERPs is more nuanced than what we see for the Conservatives. However, again, right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph takes position two and three of the SERPs – and although not immediately negative – one can imagine these articles aren’t massively objective after the user is moved to click through (although this content is behind a paywall).
Search traffic comparison
In the battle for search traffic, the Labour manifesto is vastly outperforming the Conservatives.
At its peak – shortly after publication at the end of November – the Labour manifesto got three times as much traffic as the Conservative manifesto did when it performed best on November 24th.
The related queries according to Google Trends are illuminating. “Labour manifesto waspi” is clearly the biggest policy point in search terms online. Another breakout keyphrase is “fake labour manifesto” highlighting some of the underhand tactics employed by the Conservatives (as we’ll discuss below).
For the Conservatives, related queries are dominated by long-tail keyphrases that users are typing in to differentiate the new UK Conservative manifesto – “conservative manifesto 2019 UK” from the Canadian equivalent “conservative manifesto 2019 Canada”. Sadly for Prime Minister Johnson, there’s no appearance of “get Brexit done”. Do Google’s users actually care about this policy? Perhaps not.
Banned Google ads and misleading websites
The appearance of the breakout search term “fake labour manifesto” as highlighted at Google Trends points to some of the more bizarre aspects of this general election. The Conservatives have appeared to dabble in black hat tactics, and outright fakery, to try and confuse voters and diffuse the positive results Labour is clearly getting online.
To coincide with the launch of Labour’s manifesto, the Conservative party set up a fake website at labourmanifesto.co.uk and launched a paid search campaign to capture clicks from the SERPs.
Google promptly banned eight of the Conservatives’ search ads
Google has promptly banned eight of the Conservatives’ search ads. The fake website is still live, but only really visible, currently, when searching for “fake labour manifesto” – and even then it appears below several news sources highlighting the Conservatives unethical behavior.
Google’s ad policy states:
“We value honesty and fairness, so we don’t allow the promotion of products or services that are designed to enable dishonest behaviour.”
I’d be very surprised if the Conservatives’ digital marketing team don’t know this.
But for the sake of democracy, it’s good to see the search engine stick to their principles here.
Promises to increase connectivity
Of the whole election so far, the digital policy which has perhaps received the most headlines is Labour’s “free full-fiber broadband to all by 2030”.
Back in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn won re-election as leader of the Labour Party on the back of such policy announcements as The Digital Democracy Manifesto. It’s not surprising that there is much reference to the emancipatory power of emerging technology and being properly connected in the current manifesto.
As the document states, the intentions behind the free broadband initiative are to – “boost jobs, tackle regional inequality and improve quality of life as part of a mission to connect the country”. It is firmly rooted in a fairly detailed nationalization plan which will see the establishment of British Broadband with two arms, British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and British Broadband Service (BBS), as well as bringing the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership.
While it is a little more buried in the Conservative manifesto, they have their own broadband plan too.
As is the case for nearly every policy point in the document, it is presented in reference to the UK’s ongoing relationship with the EU:
“We are Europe’s technology capital, producing start-ups and success stories at a dazzling pace. But not everyone can share the benefits”, it states.
“We intend to bring full fiber and gigabit-capable broadband to every home andbusiness across the UK by 2025.”
The policy is highlighted again in later pages as part of the government’s pledge to support rural life and coastal communities. “£5 billion in funding already promised”, it says. But beyond this, there is no detail on how much this broadband provision will cost to the end-user, nor to what degree it will be delivered by the private or public sector.
Education, skills and new technology
While the Conservative manifesto is presented through the lens of Brexit, the Labour manifesto is largely shaped by the environment and their central proposal to kickstart a ‘green industrial revolution.’
A skilled workforce is integral to this. The proposed National Education Service promises free education to everyone throughout their lives. This is of particular interest to those working in digital where we see re-training and re-skilling as increasingly important strategies to plug the skills gap in a fast-changing sector.
“With automation and the Green Industrial Revolution bringing major changes to industry,’ the manifesto states, ‘it is more important than ever that people have the opportunity to retrain and upskill throughout their lives…England already faces a shortage of people with higher-level technical qualifications, and demand for these skills will only grow as we create new green jobs.”
Skills are also a key feature for the Conservatives, despite the document failing to acknowledge the current gap businesses face.
A proposed £3 billion National Skills Fund is earmarked to upskill the British workforce.
“This fund will provide matching funding for individuals and SMEs for high-quality education and training”, the manifesto states.
“A proportion will be reserved for further strategic investment in skills, and we will consult widely on the overall design.”
The Conservatives also promise a further £2 billion to upgrade the entire further education college estate as well as planning to build 20 Institutes of Technology. Although there is little mention of what ends the skills fund and this education investment is for. Services are given a passing mention – “we should open up trade in services, in which the majority of us work and where most new jobs will be created.” – but there is little detail on what these service jobs are expected to be, how they will be supported by the state, and how they will be opened up.
Digital experience in health and public services
Healthcare is a massive issue in this election. Both parties are looking to emerging technologies as a way to help alleviate strains from underfunding and/or an aging population, as well as to improve diagnosis and patient experience.
Labour is pledging to increase spending across the health sector by an average of 4.3% per year. AI and cyber technology are two things earmarked for some of this investment, as well as state-of-the-art medical equipment. Their manifesto also acknowledges the importance of data rights to citizens within this increasingly digital area of our lives, promising to ensure:
- ‘Data protection for NHS and patient information.’
- ‘NHS data is not exploited by international technology and pharmaceutical corporations.’
The Conservative manifesto is not short on health tech promises either. They pledge to introduce an annual Health Technology Summit and they have also promised £1 billion extra annual social care funding to go towards – in part – new technology and facilities.
In the arena of citizen protections, the Conservative manifesto also proposes a new approach to cybercrime. “We will embrace new technologies and crackdown on online crimes”, the document states. “We will create a new national cybercrime force and empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework.”
The Labour party manifesto also devotes considerable wordcount to cybersecurity:
“Cybercrime and cyberwarfare are growing, all around the world. Every aspect of our lives, from the NHS to our nuclear facilities”, it states.
In response, the party plans to review two existing bodies – the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency – to increase powers, capacity, and skills where necessary.
Labour also wants to extend more rights to citizens online with their proposed Charter of Digital Rights, as well as planning to introduce imprints for digital political adverts in an effort to combat fake news. Additionally, as part of their welfare plans, the party wants to give users multichannel access (online, telephone, face-to-face, and outreach support) to make help and assistance easier to access for all.
Both parties want big digital corporations to pay more tax. For Labour, this is a costed part of their plan to help fund their free broadband rollout and other projects (£23.7 billion from reversing cuts to corporation tax, £6.3 billion from unitary tax on multinationals, and £6.2 billion from their Fair Tax Programme).
The Conservatives have also promised to implement a digital services tax although there is no mention in the manifesto or the accompanying costings document as to what this tax rate will be, what it will bring in to the government, and which digital services this is aimed at.
On this front, my guess is Google, Facebook, Amazon et al. will be more concerned if a Labour government gets in than if a Conservative one is re-elected.
Much reference is made to British Broadband in Labour’s costings document and it is easy to make the link between their tax and spend plans. When looking at broadband in the Conservative costings document, however, its cost as part of their infrastructure strategy is reiterated, but it’s hard to see how it will actually be funded.
Further analysis of both party’s costings documents highlights the divide between them
When it comes to skills, the link between the money that’s needed for Labour to roll out their Lifelong Learning is easy to see across two tables. Yet the Conservative manifesto and costings document are harder to process. There are numerous tables, as well as proposed investments such as the ‘National Skills Fund worth £3 billion’ (as it is described in the manifesto) looking like it won’t receive any more than ~£600 million per year from 2021 until the end of the parliament (adding up to just £1.8 billion in total).
This trend continues in the context of health and public services technology.
£1 billion for social care per year is certainly a welcome promise by the Conservatives – with an aging population, staff shortages, and the availability of emerging technologies that help with remote care and increased independence for citizens. But when turning to the costings document again, this is nearly a third of the total income from the first year of their Sources of Revenue table and it doesn’t fill me with confidence that a party operating in the wake of their own austerity measures can actually deliver these PR-quotable lumps of cash.
Takeaways for the parties
The search campaigns by both parties in the lead up to this election have positive and negative points.
The simplistic and memorable SEO approach from the Conservatives may well be all they need to convince voters. But through the lens of the Google SERPs, the “get Brexit done” slogan has brought about some negative sentiment and doesn’t seem to be driving the traffic as we might expect.
Closing note regarding the Labour Party
Labour, on the other hand, has seemingly tried to capture attention via a number of issues. This is reflected in the manifesto itself, the site structure and onsite SEO, and the traffic success the domain is having with niche key phrases such as “labour manifesto waspi”.
Closing note regarding the Conservative Party
Yet, to look at the above and assume that the Conservatives have been lazy with their online campaign is wrong. Their paid search activity appears to have been synchronized and calculated. And rather than put forward their own policies in an attempt to influence clicks to their manifesto content, they’ve turned their efforts to misleading users and firing cheap shots at Labour policies which are seeing a positive response online.
Of course, these underhand tactics within the SERPs weren’t an isolated incident.
The Conservatives were also criticized (by The New York Times and others) when their press office passed off partisan opinion as objective ‘fact-checking’ on Twitter. The party’s activists have also been found to be posing as the Green Party in Facebook ads (in an attempt to split the left-leaning vote).
In the world of digital marketing, all these channels carry weight, but I would argue that it is the party’s search activities that are the most worrying from a democratic point of view. There’s no shifting the blame to frivolous press office employees or activists here – fake microsites and time-sensitive paid search campaigns are far more strategic, and those in the upper echelons of the party should bear at least some responsibility.
Takeaways for digital businesses
The Conservatives have been punished by Google for some of their activities, but whether they are punished at the ballot box remains to be seen. In the world of search, it is never worth trying to deceive users or impersonate competitors for clicks.
Those of us working in the digital industries are very aware of both the challenges and the opportunities in a technologically transformed world. The skills gap is a very immediate issue for all businesses adopting digital tools and emerging technologies. It is important that there are state-supported programs to try and close this gap.
In the UK, we also need a government committed to connecting those in society who are left behind when it comes to broadband provision. This is significant for those wanting to start up digital businesses away from urban centers, as well as for those whose digital audiences will grow with the rollout of dependable internet in rural areas.
In the business context
Consumers expect data protections and commitment to security – as well as experiences that are seamless across channels and customer-led. As more and more parts of our lives become entwined with digital technology – be it in healthcare or other public services – we need to be able to trust that attitudes towards rights and data are citizen-led. Members of the public must be educated, empowered, and safe.
There is much pessimism about what is around the corner for the UK – a country faced with Brexit, the environmental crisis, and more besides. In a superficial sense, it’s possible to read these manifestos as a business owner and be daunted by the detail of corporation tax rises in the Labour document while feeling that the Conservatives would be a profit-friendly prospect. But it is the lack of detail in the Conservative manifesto which should be a major worry to corporations: the ‘digital services tax,’ the commitment to seemingly arbitrary investment lumps, and even ‘get Brexit done’ rings hollow after three years of failed negotiations – how can any corporation trust this?
A government that is committed to ethical, reasonable, transparent, and long term ideas about how we can work and live together is one that I feel we should be supporting at this election and those forthcoming in the US and elsewhere. After all, these are the virtues I would expect of a modern business faced with the challenges and opportunities of a future of digital transformation and emerging technology. It seems justified to expect this in politics too.
The post The UK election and SEO games: Search, scandal, and big promises appeared first on Search Engine Watch.
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