Political advertising and social media: a match made in heaven? (Part Two)

Image by Today Testing. Available on Wikipedia Commons under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

We need not look far into the past to find examples of Facebook being outrageously abused as a political platform. During the campaigning period of the 2016 Brexit referendum, under the banner of Leave.UK, the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to the personal data of around 87 million Facebook users worldwide. The data was used to identify individuals who were a) part of the British electorate, and b) whose profiles indicated – through criteria that remains unclear – that they were prime targets for the Leave campaign. Those identified were subsequently exposed to paid adverts promoting an anti-Europe line. The aforementioned organic reach factor then disseminated awareness of the campaign for free. Cambridge Analytica’s methods have since been denounced as illegal, and the firm is undergoing criminal investigation, but the influence it had in determining the tragic outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum in undeniable. The scandal was a wake-up call for the modern electorate, revealing the reality of how personal information, once stored online, can be manipulated and somewhat weaponised for political gain.

What’s more, only last week another misuse was brought to light. Facebook was instructed by the BBC – who were informed of the questionable claims being made by viewers, not their own mechanisms – to withdraw a completely unsupported advert. The advert implied that a Labour government’s tax plans would result in household’s paying £214 more per month than at current, even though Labour’s tax proposals had not been released. The advert’s unsubstantiated claim was running under the Fair Tax Campaign, spearheaded by an ex-colleague of Boris Johnson. The incident is simply further testimony to the danger that Zuckerberg’s apparent commitment to freedom of expression presents.

It must be pointed out that there has arguably never been reliable methods of holding campaigners to account, and that the electorate has thus always been inevitably exposed to severely skewed and inaccurate information. This problem, however, is most prominent online, for many more reasons than those discussed above. Life in general is becoming increasingly digitised, and the fact that British political parties are not allowed to advertise through the mediums of TV and radio (American politicians are allowed to) makes the internet a natural – and crucial – area of contest. Online, we are often caught off-guard. Many of us frequently use the internet to consume, to scroll, to not really have to think for while. The result? We, the electorate, are prone to being swallowed up by the political adverts with the snappiest, catchiest slogans, just as their patrons intend. We fail to question the bases of their claims, rushing on to the next appointment of the day.

So, social media should be completely banned as a medium to promote political messages, right? Wrong. Where change needs to be enacted, however, is in relation to the robustness of content. Mechanisms need to be put in place to challenge – not eliminate – the paid political adverts in our social media pages. Some powers-that-be have made steps in this direction: Channel 4 recently announced that if you see a political advert you feel should be investigated, you can simply use the hashtag #TargetVoter, and they’ll get straight on it. Only time will tell the effectiveness of this measure, but at least it’s a start. With Facebook, further transparency is desperately needed. Very little is known about how their adverts target different users. The BBC are, to their moderate credit, making a sort of effort to decipher the methods deployed: by urging users to get in contact when they simply come across targeted political adverts, the hope is that some light on the issue can be shed through pattern identification.

Ultimately, if respected, social media provides a – currently relatively untapped – valuable and legitimate tool for political advertising. If callously exploited, the reverse: it becomes an uncontrolled “no-man’s-land”, in which the party with the most emotive rhetoric, but more importantly the most capital, will be victorious. Maybe, given the current prominent British political actors, this courtesy is simply too much to ask.

Feature image by Sean MacEntee. Available flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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