Over the past decade political campaigning has been completely transformed by the rise of digital advertising. The ability to canvass on a personal level is now as much about being online as it is about knocking on front doors, with political parties able to zero in on key swing constituencies and demographics across the internet. However, alongside the rapid development of this industry, there are also major questions being raised as to the transparency and legitimacy of how this tactic has been leveraged in recent campaigns. Claims of outsider influence in referendums and elections, as well as the harvesting of personal data without consent by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, are well-documented and have shone a light on the need for reform.
Other instances of questionable influence on political campaigns are less renowned. A 2019 parliamentary report into disinformation and fake news commissioned research by 89up and found a sophisticated yet anonymous Brexit-supporting website named ‘Mainstream Network’ had spent £257,000 on advertising over ten months in 2018. The total reach of the site’s spend was up to 10.9 million users and examples of their adverts included dismissal of the Prime Minister’s Chequers deal.
One aim of the Mainstream Network was to encourage users to email their MP, but then, as users were doing so, the website also inserted their own email to the bcc field. This meant the site was able to acquire individual email addresses without consent. 89up not only found the site to be misleading, but also lacking the legally required information for GDPR compliance. This failure to comply, coupled with spend estimates, indicated the anonymous site was potentially in breach of both GDPR and Electoral Commission rules.
We’re now in the midst of the first UK general election since the application of GDPR, and it is clear there is increasing pressure for change. There are three areas which are being focussed on for reform; the content that is being distributed, how personal data is being used to reach voters and the traceability of funding. These topics are each being tackled by The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission respectively, but have they had enough time to bring about change ahead of this early election?
Perhaps surprising to most is the lack of any Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) guidelines within online political advertising; it is exempt from the code of conduct companies are required to follow. This includes social responsibility, fair competition and producing material based on firm evidence.
Speaking on the lack of regulation within political campaigning during the Brexit referendum back in 2016, one member of the ASA stated major political parties could not agree on a uniform practice to adhere to, citing freedom of speech and the speed of political campaigning as blockers for implementing such a code of conduct. The calls for regulation seem even more pertinent with recent incidents during the 2019 General Election; paid ads were driving to a fake Labour manifesto site owned by the Conservative party, the Conservatives changed its Twitter to Fact Check UK, a fake manifesto page for the Conservatives was set up by an unknown source, a doctored video of a Keir Starmer interview was distributed and the Liberal Democrats shared potentially misleading poll results where the question was restrictive and only mentioned in the small print:
The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising are looking to change this. They have launched a tracker for the 2019 General Election that lists political misinformation, as well as a four point plan for the future of political advertising. The plan focuses on preventing instances like the above, challenging them before release:
Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so
Require all objective factual claims used in political adverts to be substantiated
Compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online advert
In comparison, the use of personal data is currently regulated much more closely. The Information Commissioner’s Office has released guidelines outlining which personal data is available to use in political campaigns. The guidelines bring to light interesting dos and don’ts of how politicians are allowed to contact the public.
The rules around mobile phone numbers and email addresses are, as you might expect under GDPR, restricted whereby the user must first show informed consent before being reached via these mediums. Contrastingly, direct post from political parties is allowed “unless the individual has asked the organisation not to write to them or not to send them marketing material by post”, says the ICO.
In terms of personal data, it appears that digital channels are under more scrutiny than any other.
Finally, in terms of tracking the funding of these campaigns, has progress been made since the issues seen in the Mainstream Network case? In June 2018, the Electoral Commission set out 17 recommendations to the Government and social media companies with one simple aim, “We [the Electoral Commission] want every UK voter to know who is paying to target them online during elections and referendums”.
The recommendations include digital material requiring a label to explain who is behind the campaign and campaigners sub-dividing their spend reporting to give more information on digital activity. They also include giving the Electoral Commission more powers for obtaining information and issuing higher maximum fines if anybody is found to be in breach of the rules.
Fast forward to the end of 2019 and the first General Election since the report, the Electoral Commission’s site is updated to say they are “working with the government as they think about how to regulate digital campaigning” while they “meet with social media companies regularly”. Through the latter they have managed to commit Facebook to a library of ads in the UK which can be reached by the public to see advertising spend and content.
Other than this public library, it’s hard to see how many of the Electoral Commission's recommendations for funding were enforced in time for the 2019 General Election.
It is clear that pressure is mounting from organisations and they have each outlined a clear view on how to reform. However so much of the power for change is on the side of major advertising platforms, so how they have responded to this increased pressure?
Google has announced two major changes to its election ads approach. The first is that in order to serve political ads your advertiser must be verified by Google, helping to fight the external funding influences within campaigning. The second is that electoral targeting was restricted at the end of November 2019 to remove user information strategies or CRM. This means political campaigns can only target on the basis of geography, demographic or the type of content the user is on, similar to those applied to the alcohol and gambling industries.
Facebook and Instagram
Facebook have defined adverts referencing social issues, elections or politics as requiring separate treatment to that of standard advertising on the platform. Advertisers must undergo a verification process which requires you to be the page admin for whom you are advertising, be based in the same country and be able to confirm your ID or proof of address. Once complete these adverts will include a disclaimer to show the name of the entity that paid for the ad. These ads, along with the amount of spend pushed towards them, demographic reach, and advertiser info, will be made available to view on the aforementioned public library for up to seven years.
However, with regards to ad content, Facebook has limited regulations. Freedom of speech has taken precedence on the platform, with Mark Zuckerberg claiming that Facebook do not fact check political ads as he believes users should “judge [the candidates] character for themselves”.
At the start of the 2019 election campaign, Twitter took the position to ban all political advertising, citing the belief that political message-reach should be earned, not bought. Counter arguments have since been raised that this favours established candidates, and the platform has been forced to step in on the Conservative “fact checking” name alteration. Pinterest, LinkedIn and TikTok have also made the decision to ban political advertising from their platforms.
Snapchat has its own ad library, provided in the format of a downloadable excel, with links to ad previews and details on funding and targeting. It contains all the same information, but isn’t as easily navigated for the general public.
However, Snapchat’s policy to require substantiation for all factual claims means it is leading the way in holding politicians accountable for the information they are promoting, and ensuring users are not misinformed in their decision making.
Did The General Election Come Too Soon?
It’s clear the ever increasing pressure from organisations, the media and the public have driven some change to the approaches toward digital political advertising. The progress is particularly evident in the use of personal data, where more transparency and guidelines are in place. And there has been some progress on the funding side of things, with advertisers requiring verification, labelling the source of adverts and historical adverts being available to the public. It is content which appears hardest to reform, particularly as it touches on freedom of speech, but the lack of any regulation currently seems unsustainable.
There is further difficulty in that the multiple areas of reform are all constantly evolving at a pace faster than it would seem legislation can currently accommodate. We may be more prepared than in 2017, but given the instances of misinformation already seen this year, it is fair to argue this election has come too soon, and reasonable to say that by the next election there is a high chance we will need new legislation to tackle different digital campaign challenges.
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