Twitter caused a media sensation recently when it announced it would be banning all political advertising, and other social media giants like Facebook look to be following suit.
With public trust at a low point in the wake of the Cambridge Analytical data-sharing scandal as well as evidence of state-actor attempts to influence elections in the UK, US and beyond, coverage of this new measure has been largely positive.
But I believe this is a poorly thought-out decision, especially with half of all UK adults using social media to keep up with the news and one in five US adults following suit.
Facebook and others shouldn’t ban political ads, they should be banning targeted advertising and take a firmer stance on misinformation and disinformation.
Voters need to understand candidate and party platforms
Advertising in politics performs the same function as advertising in the commercial sector: persuasion that this is the right choice, the right flag to rally round, the right issue to back, the right brand to select from the shelf in the face of all the other brands screaming “Pick me!” Candidates, political parties, and advocacy groups need the space to lay out their messages before the voting public and advertising is one form of doing that.
In itself, political advertising from candidates stating their message or denouncing the other side isn’t problematic. The problem lies with lack of transparency, either through targeted advertising, or through accounts that are designed for spreading a specific message, or even spreading misinformation, without openly declaring it—bots and sockpuppets.
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The supposed advantage of targeted advertising is that it puts information about a product, service, or political party in front of people who really want to see it. These advantages have been largely debunked – targeted advertising barely performs better than plain old broadcast advertising, and is occasionally even a money sink that only targets people who would have been prone to buying something anyway.
But lack of impact is not its only problem: targeted advertising and similar technologies like personalised search contribute to the filter bubble, where we see an increasingly narrow range of content tailored to who the internet thinks we are. If an ad is targeted at you, I might never see it. Which means, in the case of things like job ads, that I might have no idea such a role is available.
Even if the language in the ad were completely designed to put me off applying, at least through traditional broadcast and print media we each have an equal chance of seeing the ad so I could know what I was missing out on. Job ads, insurance and financial services have recently come under fire for this digital redlining and it’s time for political ads to get the same treatment.
In billboard, broadcast TV and newspaper advertising at least you, and everybody else, knew what was out there. With targeted political advertising, I might never know how issues are being framed to other people not in my target demographic. I have no opportunity to draw my own conclusions, respond, or debunk what’s being said.
Rather than banning political advertising, Facebook and others should treat political advertising the same as their traditional media counterparts: no filtering based on protected characteristics — or any other characteristics.
Ban the bots and sockpuppets
The real problem isn’t political advertising as we typically think of it at all: regardless of the underhanded tactics used by some political ads for candidates and political parties, at least they’re typically transparent about their aims. People can make up their own minds about the trustworthiness of the information in the ad based on their knowledge of who is behind it.
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The more insidious form of media manipulation is networks of bots (partially or fully automated accounts) or sockpuppet accounts (real people pretending to be others) posting political content. Not only do these accounts stream out messages, but they engage in one-on-one dialogue with legitimate social media users, making persuasive political arguments and sometimes even sharing misinformation.
Cybersecurity specialists are increasingly noticing botnets and sockpuppets being used to target and harass legitimate users in attempts to get them banned from various social media platforms.
Separating fake accounts from legitimate ones is no easy task, especially at scale. But it is this and banning targeted advertising, rather than banning candidate and party political advertising overall, that will bring us back to a more honest and genuine public conversation about politics.