LittleLaw looks at… Political Advertising on Social Media

Why social media platforms are under the spotlight for their stance on political advertising

March 26, 2020

10 min read

Sign up to our mailing list! 👇

What's going on here?

In light of author Stephen King’s decision to quit Facebook1, as the company continues to permit political advertising, LittleLaw looks into political advertising online, what social media giants (like Twitter and Facebook) are doing about it, and whether government intervention, including regulation, is needed

In October 2019, and before Facebook’s earnings conference call (an update on the company’s quarterly earnings with investors and press), Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, announced that the social media platform would be banning political advertising on its platform globally2. This has piled increasing pressure on other internet heavyweights, namely Facebook and Google, who have so far refused to follow suit. However, during last November’s “purdah” (pre-general election period) in the UK, Facebook removed some government adverts for being incorrectly labelled3 – could this signal a shift in Facebook’s previously relaxed attitude and sense of responsibility towards political advertising?

What "political advertising" means

Political advertising is defined in ASA’s CAP Code as communications aiming “to influence voters in a local, regional, national or international election or referendum”4. Facebook’s Northern Europe Director, Steve Hatch, recently argued that the definition is much wider than we think, including adverts from a political party or candidate and more general adverts that aim to create social change through government5, for example, from a charity.

Political advertising plays a major part in elections, from leaflets through constituents’ letterboxes to increasingly targeted online communication. The first instance of online advertising in a US political campaign was Peter Vallone’s website adverts in 1998; now Brad Parscale, from Trump’s campaign team, takes credit for helping Trump win the Presidency in 2016 with a digital campaign that included $24m in digital-ad buys6, 7.  

The exponential rise of political advertising on social media platforms and its ability to influence voters – 26% of UK adult social media users are more likely to vote following social media engagement8 – continues to attract scrutiny.

The history of political advertising on social media

To understand the prevalence of political advertising online, it is first pertinent to look at its development so far. In the US, Barack Obama was the country’s first “social media candidate”, successfully leveraging his online presence to garner votes among younger generations. Digital advert spend by candidates skyrocketed from US $22.25m in the 2008 Presidential Election to to US $1.4bn in 2016. Without any previous political campaign experience, Brad Parscale implemented Trump’s online Presidential Campaign using tactics no different from “a typical B2C digital campaign” (promoting a business’s goods and services to potential consumers)9. His team churned out more than 50,000 advert variations each day to nano-target audiences and take advantage of Facebook’s dark adverts function, which publishes adverts only viewable to the publisher and intended target audience (as explained further in this article), to encourage some demographics to vote and others not to – voter suppression10

The UK’s taste for political advertising is slightly more reserved compared to the US. Political parties spent a total of £1.3m on Facebook adverts in 2015 and £3.2m in 201711; at least £2m was spent on Facebook and Instagram in the run-up to the 2019 election12. Breaking this down further, the Conservatives have typically spent more than Labour on social media advertising, because of weaker mailshots (direct mail) and canvassing (knocking on voters’s doors) operations13. While Momentum, a grassroots movement supportive of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,  only spent £2,000 on Facebook advertising in 2015 to greater success through the use of positive messaging, celebrity endorsements and highly targeted adverts14. However, the 2019 election was regarded as the country’s first “fake news” election15 with over 30 campaigns from different parties being reported as “indecent, dishonest or untruthful”16.

Why is political advertising on social media controversial?

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal and suspected Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, social media platforms are under increasing pressure to regulate political advertising. From dark advertising and deepfakes (as explained further in this article) to microtargeting and lookalike audiences, investigators and journalists continue to uncover the dark underbelly of political advertising.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal showcased the loopholes in Facebook’s original data privacy policies by mining Facebook users’ and their friends’ data. Cambridge Analytica used this data to create psychographic profiles to effectively micro-target political adverts in the UK’s Brexit referendum and Trump’s 2016 US Presidential campaign17. Political advertising campaigns have used this personal data to take advantage of social media platforms’ “dark adverts”, which are “unpublished posts” that do not appear on the advertisers’ timeline or followers’ homepage but target only those users who are intended to see the content18. The dark adverts’ target audience can be narrowed down based on specific profile information, such as job title, and to hundreds of Facebook users19. Dark adverts are controversial because of their proven ability to sway political opinion and the difficulty for those who are not the target audience, especially regulators, to uncover and police these different adverts20.

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organisation affiliated with the Russian government, has been able to create fake online identities, such as local community pages, and share publications on social media to encourage political divides during the 2016 US Presidential Election. After FBI Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller charged the IRA with “conspiracy to defraud the US” and “aggravated identity theft”, Facebook announced it would remove more than 270 pages and accounts linked to the IRA21. As the “biggest trolling operation in history”, the IRA has been successful at sowing disinformation and removing the internet’s usefulness as a space for free speech22. Additionally, “Deepfakes” (doctored audio or video) can show any public figure saying whatever the creator desires through the use of increasingly affordable AI technology and a short audio sample, which makes it difficult to prove what is real and what is not23.

What is the wider policy impact?

The aforementioned controversies surrounding political advertising on social media presents a strong argument for regulation by both social media platforms and governments. However, decisions on who should take responsibility, and the practical realities of policing social media advertising, highlight the fact that this remains an urgent but unfeasible solution at present.

As social media platforms like Facebook are private companies, there is a conflict of interest between their fiduciary duty to shareholders and the general public or commitment to free speech. A fiduciary duty means acting in the best interest of their shareholders, so removing a major revenue stream, like political advertising, would be contrary to these companies and their shareholders’ interest. For Twitter, political advertising only accounted for a small percentage of their revenue, therefore they could afford to ban political advertising and, as a by-product, obtain some good PR and put further pressure on their competitor24

In order to maintain free speech among other democratic values, Facebook argues it is not the responsibility of social media companies to edit and regulate content on their platforms. In fact, more is better – political advertising encourages public discourse and removing paid-for political adverts will have the opposite effect of levelling the playing field, instead it would entrench the position of incumbents. Twitter argues to the contrary, stating the fact that there are social movements which have grown without paid-for political advertising25

The critical question seems to revolve around who decides what is classed as a political advert. Facebook is already making these decisions with the imminent launch of “Facebook News“, which will curate and edit news stories for users26, and has rejected over 100 adverts from US Presidential candidates on design and public policy grounds27. Both of which are complex and poorly understood policies; once rejected, most adverts come with a blanket, untailored explanation from Facebook28.

Plans to curb microtargeting and introduce more transparency have recently been announced, with Facebook considering enlarging its target audience size (from hundreds to thousands). Further, Google has announced it will limit targeting to basic demographic information29. Critics point out this will make little difference for Google, the majority of its advertising being based on organic search terms. Transparency is also improving, with Facebook seemingly taking the advice of Sir John Holmes, head of the Electoral Commission, by requiring a disclaimer so users know who is behind the advert, similar to UK rules for election leaflets30. The creation of Facebook’s Ad Library displays all paid-for political content posted on Facebook and Instagram, but only if these adverts are flagged by the advertiser. Additionally, the Ad Library does not disclose the specific location, they only show it on a national scale, making it sometimes difficult to see who is being targeted31

The fact that the major players in the online advertising industry remain Facebook and Google lends to the argument for regulation32. Zuckerberg recently opined the importance of regulation in four key areas, one of which is elections, and expressed his support for “clearer rules” like the “Honest Ads Act” in the USA, a bipartisan bill introduced to the Senate last year33 (despite being accused of lobbying privately against it). The international reach of online political advertising and these social media platforms generally also raises questions of feasibility for whoever is assigned responsibility to monitor political advertising.

Previous attempts to establish a code of practice among political parties in the UK led to a stalemate34, so it is difficult to believe that an agreement on regulations for political advertising between competing social media platforms and a national government could be reached in the near future. In the UK, it’s a case of hot potato as “neither the Electoral Commission nor the Advertising Standards Authority see it as their role to monitor or police campaign lies and disinformation”35. Although it is unclear how strong or far-reaching its powers will be, Ofcom have recently been appointed as the UK’s first Internet regulator, which could be a sign of things to come.

LittleLaw’s verdict: Global groupchat needed to decide what’s next for political advertising

Government legislation is urgently needed to regulate the boom in political advertising on social media. Policymakers need to introduce national legislation fit for the 21st century, which reflects the nuances of political advertising, from grassroots activism to political parties, and leaves room to adapt based on future developments.

While an industry-wide consensus or the introduction of a code of conduct would resolve some issues, it is unlikely to occur in the near future. However, social media platforms have no excuse not to step up their individual approaches to combat misinformation, before others take matters into their own hands.

Report written by Hannah Mei-Grisley

If you’d like to write for LittleLaw, click here!

Share this now!


  1. Jane Wakefield, “Author Stephen King quits Facebook” (BBC News, 4 February 2020).
  2. Trevor Hunnicutt, “Twitter bans political ads; Facebook’s Zuckerberg defends them” (Reuters, 30 October 2019).
  3. Unknown, “General Election 2019: Facebook takes down ‘political’ advertising” (BBC News, 2 November 2019).
  4. Unknown, “Political advertising” (ASA, 15 August 2019).
  5. Amol Rajan, “Facebook chief: ‘Defining what is political advertising is hard’” (BBC News, 19 November 2019).
  6. Sue Halpern, “The Problem Of Political Advertising On Social Media” (New Yorker, 24 October 2019).
  7. Julia Carrie Wong, “It might work too well’: the dark art of political advertising online” (The Guardian, 19 March 2018).
  8. Josh Tapper, “Social media now playing a hugely consequential role in UK politics” (Demos, 18 October 2016).
  9. Unknown, “How Social Media Can Enhance Political Campaigns” (DMI Daily Digest, unknown).
  10. Lois Beckett, “Trump digital director says Facebook helped win the White House” (The Guardian, 9 October 2017).
  11. Dan Sabbagh, “Rise of digital politics: why UK parties spend big on Facebook” (The Guardian, 23 March 2018).
  12. Joe Tidy, Rachael Schraer, “General election 2019: Ads are ‘indecent, dishonest and untruthful’” (The Guardian, 17 December 2019).
  13. The Guardian.
  14. DMI Daily Digest.
  15. Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, “Fake news, emotions, and social media” (Election Analysis, 23 December 2019).
  16. Joe Tidy.
  17. Ian Sherr, “Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and data mining: What you need to know” (CNet, 18 April 2018).
  18. Maxwell Gollin, “What Are Dark Posts on Social Media?” (, 13 November 2018).
  19. Alex Hern, “Facebook to curb microtargeting in political advertising” (The Guardian, 22 November 2019).
  20. Alex Hearn, “Facebook ‘dark ads’ can swing political opinions, research shows” (The Guardian, 31 July 2017).
  21. Laura Hautala, Ian Sherr, “Facebook axes Russia-linked pages to stop election interference” (CNet, 3 April 2018).
  22. Krishnadev Calamurk, “What Is the Internet Research Agency?” (The Atlantic, 16 Feb 2018).
  23. Julia Sachs, “Are Deepfakes The Future Of Advertising?” (Grit Daily, 14 Dec 2019).
  24. Trevor Hunnicutt, “Twitter bans political ads; Facebook’s Zuckerberg defends them” (Reuters, 30 October 2019).
  25. Dorsey Twitter thread / Swisher and Scott Galloway, “Twitter will stop running political ads … your move, Facebook” (Recode by Vox, 1 November 2019).
  26. Campbell Brown and Mona Sarantakos, “Introducing Facebook News” (Facebook, 25 October 2019).
  27. Above n 7.
  28. Amol Rajan.
  29. Alex Hern, 22 November 2019.
  30. Unknown, “Political ads on social media must be transparent – Electoral Commission” (BBC News, 26 June 2018).
  31. Paul Sargeant, “General election 2019: Who have parties been targeting on social media?” (BBC News, 8 November 2019).
  32. Jillian D’Onfro “Google and Facebook extend their lead in online ads, and that’s reason for investors to be cautious” (CNBC, 20 December 2017).
  33. Mark Zuckerberg, “Big Tech needs more regulation” (Financial Times, 16 February 2020).
  34. Suzanne McCarthy, “Regulating political advertising in the UK– truth or consequences?” (Risk and Regulation, 2017).
  35. BBC News.

Check out our recent reports!