Bad Advertising: Online political advertising needs new regulation

May 22, 2019

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Louise Edwards, Director of Regulation at the Electoral Commission (an independent UK Parliamentary body that makes sure that elections are run correctly), has said that new legislation is needed imminently to make political online advertising far more transparent.

What does this mean?

Political adverts on mainstream social media platforms (especially Facebook) are now the well-established dark art of political campaigning. Yet new legislation is needed to ensure that “parties and campaigners say on the face of their advert, who they are, who’s paid for that advert and who is being promoted” explains Louise Edwards. Legislators have a clear conflict of interest in this regard. They must uphold their duty to the public of allowing free and fair electoral campaigns to take place, but must also strive for electoral victory on an increasingly competitive and unpredictable battleground. A prime example of this is Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. The Trump campaign ran 5.9 million different adverts to test which engaged the most people (Hillary Clinton only used 66,000). This allowed a varying campaign message to be tested across many variations that targeted specific demographics of voters with each new advert.

As Full Fact (a UK-based fact-checking charity) explains, when an election stops being a shared experience, democracy stops working… We are used to thinking of adverts as fixed things that appear in the same way to many people. This idea is out of date”.

What's the big picture effect?

There are two key areas that need further regulation:

  1. regulation of printed election advertising and
  2. the transparency of political adverts.

There is a current set of rules is called the imprint rules. These state that whenever printed election materials are produced, they must contain certain details (which are known as an ‘imprint’) to show who is responsible for the production of the material. This helps to ensure that there’s transparency about who is campaigning. However, this requirement to show who the advertiser is is only limited to printed campaign materials.

Full Fact (amongst others) argues that all political advertising should now be accompanied by full information on the advertised content (targeting, spending, reach etc) and all factual claims must be checked by an independent authority.

The challenge is getting social media platforms and governments to work harder to ensure that elections remain “a shared experience”. The Electoral Commission has struggled to action its suggestions, having first advised on many of these changes to the rules back in 2003.

There have recently been many campaigns from the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and even a private members’ bill to expand the imprint rule to digital media platforms. Facebook promises that it is “determined” to prevent this disinformation from political advertising. It has recently opened an operations centre in Dublin to oversee the European Parliament elections taking place later this week and now store an archive of political adverts.

It is clear that this opaque political targeting threatens democracy and has the potential to misinform and deliberately mislead voters. Yet, with the vested interests of both digital media platforms and political parties to profit from the current situation, will Louise Edwards comments just be another shout in the dark?

Report written by Will H

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