Mass communication is dead. Personalised communication is thriving. Social media has changed advertising, for the good, the bad and the ugly. It is well known that politicians lie, but increasingly, political communication is a tool being used by them to distort the truth. And as the general election looms, there is a growing appetite for the regulation of political advertising in the UK.
We no longer have to wait for campaign buses to reach our towns or see them on TV. Today, we recite the slogans seconds after their photos have been retweeted, shared and liked. From dawn to dusk, our phones allow us to navigate and engage with political advertising tailored specifically to our preferences, informed by our demographic, location, political opinions and affiliations, and even our penchant for Premier League Football. Activists, lobby groups, newspapers, charities and even celebrities are able to endorse political figures and parties. Political soundbites are validated through the tailored, targeted regurgitation of information presented in countless variations. So on the face of it, defining political advertising seems not only a sweeping, arbitrary injustice, but a monumental task.
Yesterday, the Conservative Party Press Office’s Twitter account was rebranded as ‘factcheckUK’ during the ITV election debate. Twitter has accused the Conservatives of misleading the public after the stunt which saw the account promote pro-Tory policies branded with the term “FACT”. Following the debate, the name was changed back to CCHQ Press. The account is followed by almost 76,000 users and the most serious contention point is that because it was a verified account, it could easily have mislead people into thinking that the information presented would be objective and unbiased, which was doubtfully the case given the content produced during their momentary rebrand centred around rebuking and bashing Labour policies.
Elsewhere this month, Facebook removed government ads targeting marginal seats, because the campaign had not been labelled clearly as such, and earlier this year, the Government’s “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign was deemed misleading and inaccurate, because it failed to acknowledge the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” on the Conservatives’ election campaign bus is an eye-brow raiser, not least because the UK is merely seeking an exit strategy from the EU. After that, no one knows how long the subsequent trade deal might take. So really, Brexit won’t be done anytime soon.
These examples show that there is an urgent need for political ads to be challenged where they make misleading claims and that they should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as all other advertising. For example, weight loss supplement Instagram ads by influencers and Deliveroo TV ads have been banned for their misleading claims by the Advertising Standards Authority, which is the UK’s independent regulator for advertising. The ASA does not regulate political advertising due to concerns around freedom of political speech, the absence of consensus between the parties to bring political advertising wholly within the scope of the Advertising Code and the risk of the ASA interfering in the democratic process.
As far as sanctions go, politicians can be charged with perjury if they lie under parliamentary oath or make false claims about another politician. There’s also the Electoral Commission to ensure fair election campaigns. But these parameters do not cover the broader remit of political advertising. Twitter’s blanket ban on political ads seemed promising at first, but it doesn’t address what constitutes political advertising or who or what determines what does.
So what can we do about it?
We need to be more self-aware. Our echo chambers are fuelled by micro-targeted advertising. We need to be more aware of our surroundings, aware of our conversations and our sway towards a political opinion. We need to challenge ourselves on why we have come to a particular view. Was it a political endorsement sponsored ad we saw? Was there a particular rhetorical question that popped up on our Instagram feed about a political party? Or perhaps we came across a suggested site propelled by Twitter or Facebook based on our interactions?
We need to utilise tools available to us. Facebook’s ads library allows us to check ads targeted at us, including the demographic targeted as well as the amount of money spent. There is also a free Chrome extension, Who Targets Me which enables voters to see how parties tailor political messages to their Facebook feeds based on personal information about them publicly available online. Charities such as Fullfact.org have popped up in response to analyse the truthfulness of the vast swathes of information we are exposed to in the digital space and prevent misinformation. Channel 4 now also has its own Factcheck team. It’s reassuring to know that we can refer to these channels when we are unsure about the validity of claims made in political advertising. But that isn’t enough.
We need to regulate political advertising. Campaigns such as politicaladvertising.co.uk and Reform Political Advertising have emerged calling for political advertising to be modernised and regulated and they help to keep us informed of the political advertising landscape. We have seen how misleading political advertising prevents healthy debate, enables polarisation, incites division, and encourages fear-mongering by exploiting our biggest irrationalities and insecurities.
Tania Hardcastle works in media regulation but writes here in a personal capacity.