Governance – Online Political Advertising
Online political ads are in urgent need of regulation
As elections loom, the risks from paid disinformation remain high
The Editorial Board
Financial Times, November 1, 2019
Online political advertising, with troves of personal data allowing messages to be highly targeted, has become one of the most powerful tools in the electoral arsenal. The scope for disinformation or outright lies — and the fact the advertising often falls outside the regulations applied to television, radio and newspapers — calls for urgent oversight.
Twitter’s move to ban political advertising on its platform this week is a welcome sign of a company taking a proactive approach. It is also an implicit challenge to rival Facebook.
Twitter said it would ban most political ads, excluding those aiming to increase voter registration. Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey argued that political ads offer a larger megaphone to those with deeper pockets than their opponents and that they have helped spread harmful content.
By contrast, Facebook exempted political ads from its usual fact-checking procedures, sparking outrage among its critics. Allowing politicians and parties to make statements without scrutiny makes Facebook’s anti-disinformation efforts look hollow. Questioned recently by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on whether she could run false stories on the network, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said she “probably” could.
Mr Zuckerberg says people would not want tech companies to be arbiters of truth in politics. These companies have long claimed to be platforms rather than publishers under the US Communications Decency Act. But the spread of political advertising on social media requires companies fact-check political ads in collaboration with trusted, independent organisations.
The very nature of online advertising also requires further investigation. Compared to television, social media companies have far greater control over what specific audiences see. Platforms have made some efforts to allow third parties to assess who is paying to advertise on them. Yet these tools can be rudimentary. Tech companies should make sure metrics such as the audience segments that have been targeted are clear and publicly available.
Official political advertising is only part of the problem, however. Sites including Twitter are still grappling with fake accounts which can boost the reach of messages, in some cases directed from foreign states. Efforts to detect and remove these accounts should be stepped up, requiring social media companies to engage more with academics and law enforcement.
While online advertising has clear differences from its traditional counterparts, existing regulation still offers a blueprint to bring it under control. In the UK, bodies such as Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Agency have clear rules on material that can be shown on television and radio. By updating and expanding the power of national regulators — perhaps with funding provided by a social media levy — more transparency around political ads could be created. In Facebook’s case, increasing regulation could also push up the costs of running political ads without verification. Tech companies have often shown that commitments to free speech are secondary to commercial imperatives.
Governments and regulators should provide clarity on how politicians and parties can promote themselves on social media platforms. National regulators should keep the threat of imposing a full-scale ban on political advertising in their arsenal. Social media companies have often proved resistant to change. With a divisive UK general election campaign now beginning and the US presidential election a year away, the stakes are exceptionally high.