Banning facebook’s political ads misses the problem


There is a ridiculously long list of reasons as to why this year’s UK General Election is both pivotal and fascinating. But aside from the chaos on the campaign trail, being fought on doorsteps and drafts church halls there is another frontier which is- deservedly- receiving scrutiny.

Social media’s place in electoral politics has become a real game changer. And with the string of past controversies looming large in many minds there have been calls to take measures in the coming weeks.

Social media’s role in recent elections has not done its reputation much good. Rampant misuse of personal data to create targeted campaigns including Cambridge Analytica’s role in the US election; foreign and anonymous interference and ad campaigns; misinformation and manipulation of voters in multiple ways (from personalised and targeted ads through to selective use of the “Voting Reminder” feature in certain geographical areas).

The reach that these platforms can have and the amount of sway they hold is extensive. The calling of the UK’s snap election next month mean that this is a real testing ground for the industries’ integrity. Will the story get worse before it gets better?

Last week Twitter scored a PR coup by announcing it was planning to ban all political adverts on the platform in light of the UK election. Arguably piling the pressure on Facebook to follow suit and seemingly leading a charge in draining the swamp that political ads and social media share. A few days later a group of campaigners and experts wrote to Facebook and Google urging them to drop adverts too. However Twitter’s response is arguably a slightly hollow gesture; as a platform it is not that crucial in the world of political advertising (political ad revenue only accounted for $3 million in last year’s US midterms as opposed to Facebook’s $284 million). This smacks therefore of canny point scoring).

So far Facebook have stuck to the line that they are merely hosts of content, not content editors or moderators. With head of communications and former MP Nick Clegg comparing Facebook’s role in political fact checking to that of a tennis court caretaker rather than a player on it. With 42 million users in the UK, Facebook has the biggest reach of any of the social media platforms. They have made concessions but there’s still a lot of grey areas.

Whilst politicians and political campaigners now need to be verified in order to set up a page the content itself is still not moderated or fact checked as it is considered opinion or satire (notably the heavily doctored video of Labour MP Keir Starmer last week would have made it onto the site unchecked). Facebook has stepped up its moderation and fact checking more broadly to try to spot campaigns of incitement or intervention (such as the interference of Russian bots on Brexit referendum day). But is this really enough. Shouldn’t the world’s largest media organisation be doing more to moderate their content?

But calling on Facebook for an outright ban presents another issue. By placing the onus on the tech giants themselves it gives them another area of power which is potentially open to abuse. Much in the same way that last year they began ranking users and media organisations as trustworthy with a trustworthiness score (the system shrouded in secrecy), a move cited as open to abuse and deeply troubling, could political integrity and what constitutes a political advert be open to the same level of misuse.

After all, what exactly constitutes a political ad? Letting Facebook answer this question seems problematic. Banning ads could be a great un-leveller. An advertising campaign by a brand for example, that focuses on a social or environmental issue might get through this categorisation, yet one by a grassroots, activist organisation might not. For less known, smaller or new parties (frequently those with less money essentially) and candidates Facebook offers a way to reach voters. By removing this option from them it concentrates power back to mainstream options. Additionally, any efforts by Facebook to change its strategy are liable to be perceived as an attempt to change perceptions of them and re-brand away from their toxic image (the recent introduction of their new capitalised logo to distinguish the company from the app itself).

What’s missing here is the wider conversation about external regulation. Banning political ads outright is problematic but finding a solution to the wild west of digital advertising is harder. In part because as it currently stands it’s beneficial for major parties or politicians. And at a time when the political agenda is so fraught it slips down the priority list, both for voters and politicians.

Ironically all these ingredients making this coming election something of a perfect storm online. It’s an issue that’s not being talked about that widely on the debate platforms offline but it’s one that will undoubtedly effect this election and needs to be tackled in order to protect the democracy of those in the future.

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