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Election issues

August 2017

The recent general election, despite the ensuing confusion, highlighted one thing with great clarity: the rules relating to online political advertising need bringing into the 21st century.

Actually, they need more than updating, they need creating; almost no rules exist at the moment. It’s the wild west out there, and politicians have been striding through loopholes with a coach and horses, if I may mix a few pre-digital metaphors.

As things stand, all election costs must be reported, with strict limits on how much may be spent in any one constituency (about £15,000) and political advertising on radio and television is forbidden.   However, none of this applies to online activities, apart from reporting the cost.

Postings on Facebook look and smell like TV adverts but dodge the broadcast ban.  As there is no limit on national spending, the parties claim them as national, not local, and avoid the fiscal restrictions.

It’s hard to prove otherwise but if you spent any time on Facebook in May, you would have quickly spotted the huge number of adverts from most of the parties.  Labour seemed to be pumping them out at an astonishing rate, and very effective they were too, much better than the Tory equivalents.  Short, well produced films from credible role models and quick, effective headlines attacking the Tories.

We’ve all heard how apparently important the votes of younger people were, and I don’t doubt for a moment that this online campaign played an important part in getting their vote out.  The new reality is that most people under thirty rarely watch television (most don’t own one) or read newspapers; all the images they see, with the associated advertising, are online.

Not only is it easy to broadcast advertising on Facebook (create a video, pay the fee, press go, and there it is) but narrowcasting is easy, too; the postings can be minutely targeted.  I don’t doubt that there were many adverts on Facebook that I didn’t see, because they were aimed at single mothers in Brighton. Or whoever. 

This produces another headache for the regulators; if, as part of a national campaign, some adverts are targeted at precise areas, shouldn’t their cost be included in the constituency limit (£15,000 maximum, remember) or are they part of the national spend?  As things stand, we don’t even know how much they spend on social media in total, never mind locally, as there is no legal obligation to itemise it in the overall returns.

The Electoral Commission, to be fair to them, identified the problem after the 2015 Election and has promised to suggest changes to the rules, but has not done so yet.

All this will, in my view, have two main effects.  One is the increased tailoring of political messages to suit specific areas and people; perhaps not a bad thing, but not good for transparency, because we can’t all see what they are up to.

Secondly, given that online advertising is unregulated, we will see the growth of the unpleasant attack adverts that are such an ugly aspect of American political campaigns; not just at election times, but continuously. 

There is a regulatory change I would like to see, which would shine a bright light on all of this.  The likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on should be required to report any activity from each of the various political parties that are registered with the Electoral Commission (fewer than 350), how much they cost and how many times they were viewed, retweeted, reposted and so on.

It would be an easy and completely automated process; we could watch, in real time, just how they are trying to influence us.  It would, I suspect, be most revealing.