Issues surrounding online political advertising have seen an unprecedented amount of attention in the run-up to today’s UK general election, as online campaigning, often via social media, becomes an increasingly significant part of political parties’ strategies. As the UK goes to the polls, LSE’s Emma Goodman tries to make sense of an increasingly complicated situation.
Our LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission report, published in late 2018, concluded that “The UK should not find itself having to go to the polls again before the legislative framework is modernised.” We called for parliament to urgently bring forward legislative change to manage political advertising online, and we are far from alone in having pushed for such change. The Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner, the DCMS Select Committee and other experts have stressed that current electoral laws are not fit for purpose when it comes to digital campaigning. But here we are, voting in another general election, and little has changed.
So what’s the problem with political advertising online?
Much has been written about this before so I won’t go into detail, but essentially the problems are that:
- Advertising spending limits are a crucial element of UK electoral regulation, and digital campaigning has the potential to undermine these by making it harder to track how much is being spent on what, where and by whom. For example, it can make it easier to spend large sums on ads in specific constituencies, because auditing is harder.
- While using data to target groups of voters has always been part of political campaigning (and targeting isn’t in itself a bad thing, as it can increase political engagement), online message targeting allows for such highly specific targeting, based on a range of behavioural and interest-based factors as well as demographics, that a party could send out a vast number of different messages to different people, raising significant questions about transparency, privacy and equal access to information. This is particularly problematic if the messages contain inaccurate and misleading content.
- These issues are exacerbated by the fact that much of the public is unaware of how closely they can be targeted by political ads, who they are being targeted by, and how their information can be used. As our social media use is analysed and used to refine campaign messages, we have arguably become “lab rats in a giant experiment” – an experiment with significant political and policy implications.
- The lack of clarity over who is behind ads also increases the risk of foreign interference in election campaigns.
These issues are not a minor concern given that, according to the Electoral Commission, campaigners spent an estimated 42.8% of their total ad spending on digital platforms during the 2017 election (almost double than in the 2015 election, at 23.9%). Commentators suspect this year’s proportion might be even higher (some Facebook spending figures are here).
What can be done?
In the absence of legislation, many have looked to tech companies to help tackle these issues. Social media companies have made some progress in addressing these challenges following global pressure (notably in advance of the US 2020 presidential election), but as with other problems of the online ecosystem, there is no obvious path forward, and interests are not always aligned. This has meant that companies’ approaches are far from consistent.
Facebook is now notorious for allowing highly targeted political advertising, which must be authorised and include a ‘Paid for by…’ disclaimer. While ads are made available in the company’s Ad Library, the disclaimer doesn’t necessarily mean clarity on who is behind ads: as the BBC found in its analysis of election ads sent in by the public, obscure groups have been publishing targeted political ads on Facebook.
Furthermore, the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced in October that the company would not fact-check political ads on its platform, ostensibly in the interests of free speech and to refrain from interfering in democracy. His decision has been met with derision from some corners.
The implications of this were made clear when First Draft found that nearly 90% of the Facebook ads posted by the UK’s Conservative Party in the first days of December were pushing figures about the NHS, income tax cuts, and more that had already challenged by Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checkers.
Google announced in November that it would restrict the micro-targeting of election ads, limiting audience targeting to the categories of age, gender, and “general location” (by postal code). This means that campaigners will no longer be able to target ads based on public voter records and general political affiliations (left-leaning, right-leaning, and independent).
“This will align our approach to election ads with long-established practices in media such as TV, radio, and print, and result in election ads being more widely seen and available for public discussion,” wrote Scott Spencer, VP Product Management, Google Ads, at the time. Enforcement of the new approach was to start with the UK, given the impending election, moving across the EU by the end of the year, and in the rest of the world starting in January next year.
The move has been greeted as a positive step forward, but critics point out that it won’t do anything to stem the problem of disinformation campaigns that are spread through ‘organic’ (not paid-for) content.
Twitter announced at the end of October that it was planning to ban paid political advertising globally on its platform within the weeks that followed. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” said CEO Jack Dorsey.
Buzzfeed reported on 11 November that the ban wouldn’t be as strict as was initially thought: although ads that advocate for a specific candidate or piece of legislation will be banned, those that spread awareness about issues of national significance would still be allowed.
Despite some criticism that it favours incumbents who already have a wider reach, the move has been welcomed by many. Using Twitter’s case as an example, representatives from tech company Mozilla, as well as think tanks, campaigning organisations and academics, published an open letter to Google and Facebook calling for a similar moratorium on political advertising on their platforms until after today’s election.
- Other platforms
Meanwhile, attitudes differ among smaller players, with TikTok deciding not to take any political advertising, and Snapchat reportedly enjoying a ‘bump’ in political ad revenues as a result of the UK’s election.
What kind of regulation is on the table?
These inconsistencies in approach arguably make the case for more regulation seem stronger as it can lead to significant concerns about citizen uncertainty and thus potential harm. But, as the BBC’s Amol Rajan has pointed out, nobody seems particularly keen to take responsibility for regulating online political advertising, despite the multiple calls for change.
Various legislative initiatives have been proposed. Examples include:
- The introduction of digital imprints
In May, the UK Government committed to implementing an imprints regime for digital election campaign material so that the public would be able to see who was paying for ads (and hence assess their credibility). However, it was announced in November that “it was not possible to legislate for and implement a regime in advance of a December election”.
Imprints would also help the Electoral Commission to enforce spending rules, as would more detailed, ‘meaningful’ reporting from campaigners, it recommended: “This should include the messages used in those campaigns, which parts of the country they were targeted at, and how much was spent on each campaign.”
- A code of practice for the processing of personal data
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is in the process of developing a code of practice for the use of personal data in political campaigning, including advice on profiling, micro-targeting, and the use of lookalike audiences. A draft code was released for consultation earlier this year, and responses are now being analysed.
- Ad libraries
While it’s a positive step that the tech giants are creating these databases, as Demos researcher Alex Krasodomski-Jones stressed while giving evidence to a Lords Committee, “it can’t be up to these companies to decide what an ad library should look like.” The Oxford Technology and Election Commission’s Phil Howard and Lisa-Maria Neudert described Facebook’s ad library as “inadequate for meaningful analysis,” and serious concerns arose when ads started to disappear from the database. Google has also admitted serious errors in its reporting on election spending.
In our T3 report, we recommended that a regulator should encourage the introduction of a UK political advertising directory and should monitor outcomes of the initiatives of relevant institutions to ensure that ad libraries are independently overseen.
Privacy International stressed in a recent report that companies should provide users with meaningful, granular information about why they are being targeted by an advertiser or a campaign, and allow access to much more information than is currently available. The Mozilla Foundation has compiled a list of guidelines, endorsed by dozens of researchers, that platforms’ ad archive APIs “must meet in order to truly support election influence monitoring and independent research.”
- ASA regulation
Unlike commercial advertising, political advertising in the UK isn’t regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). An evidence session of the Lords Committee on Democracy and Technology considered whether the ASA could (or should) take on regulation of political advertising. The main reason it does not, as ASA Chair David Currie explained, is that the ASA is a self-regulatory body that relies on the buy-in of those it regulates, and it doesn’t seem that “the political parties and the players in the political sphere have that willingness to buy into a system for regulating political advertising.”
So what now?
Tightening rules around online political advertising isn’t going to be a quick fix for all problems related to election campaigning. As my colleague Lee Edwards points out, this campaign “has not distinguished itself in terms of its focus on quality information,” and the personality-infused political marketing approach that parties have taken calls into question whether it can even be described as democratic.
But while the extent of the impact of targeted digital advertising remains unclear, with traditional media still playing a powerful role in increasing awareness and reach, there is a clear need for better understanding of how and by whom voters are being targeted, as well as how digital intermediaries are responding to potential abuse or misuse of their services.
Given the implications for democratic processes, policymakers need to work harder in the future to ensure that voters have the opportunity make informed decisions without being left vulnerable to the whims of powerful campaigners using unaccountable platforms with different rules of play.
This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.