The DCMS report is a substantial document and we welcome its contents. As many commentators have noted, the recommendations are far-reaching and far-ranging.
When we started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May there weren’t many comprehensive solutions being put forward by industry, the trade press or the wider media to the problems relating to political advertising in a digital world.
It is very encouraging, therefore, to see that some aspects of the 4-point plan we have been advocating since launch are in the report’s recommendations, as I show below.
In order to update those who have supported us this far, and to clarify our position going forward, we outline here at a high level where we think there is work still needing to be done, and point to what we believe are some important omissions in the interim report.
For ease of reference we are providing an update against the specific 4 points we’ve advocated as we did after the Leave ads were released by Facebook last week.
Require watermarks showing the origin of online adverts
The report recommends legislation for “imprints” and consideration of “clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and video, indicating the source and making it easy for users to identify what is in the adverts, and who the advertiser is”.
This principle has also been advocated in recommendations by the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums in their respective reports in the last few weeks.
Our view is that in consideration of the “clear, persistent banners” it is certainly technically possible as the numerous innovations in ad formats demonstrate.
Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
The report also states that the Government…:
“should investigate ways in which to enforce transparency requirements on tech companies, to ensure that paid-for political advertising data on social media platforms, particularly in relation to political adverts, are publicly accessible, are clear and easily searchable, and identify the source, explaining who uploaded it, who sponsored it, and its country of origin. This information should be imprinted into the content, or included in a banner at the top of the content. Such transparency would also enable members of the public to understand the behaviour and intent of the content providers, and it would also enable interested academics and organisations to conduct analyses and to highlight trends”.
This is a key recommendation but assuming, as with all the other recommendations, that it does become legislation, how it is implemented will be crucial.
Facebook has just launched its own transparency solution in the UK, which you can see here.
There are some contradictions from recommendations relating to messaging transparency in the report out yesterday and those from the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums.
Facebook’s attempt to get ahead on this issue is commendable, but our own view is that for this to work optimally there will need to be an independently run searchable database with common standards across platforms and media owners.
As we’ve said before, Facebook is undoubtedly a very large and important player but there are numerous other platforms and media owners that political advertising can be run on.
There will need to be consistency in how this recommendation is implemented across the market.
Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared
Given that just now the serious malpractice going on in political campaigning is so high on the government and media agenda, it is important we seize the opportunity to promote a holistic approach in the solutions being considered.
No doubt because of its Terms of Reference, the DCMS report focused mainly on “false, misleading and persuasive content” on digital platforms, and this means there are some glaring omissions.
Surprisingly, none of the recent reports have made recommendations on how to deal with outright untruths in political advertising.
As we mentioned last week we’d welcome full disclosure of Remain ads to allow the same scrutiny but the Leave referendum campaigns ads submitted by Facebook show a significant amount of factually incorrect ads. The ads above are good example of this.
It hadn’t been agreed that Turkey was joining the EU and according to channel 4 fact checkers the EU has never wanted to ban tea kettles! You can also see some other examples at this link.
This is an issue across all media, not just digital. With the increased appetite for reform this surely has to lead to legislative change.
The current regulation of political advertising is woefully inadequate compared with consumer advertising requirements.
This, for example, demands in section 3 of the CAP (non-broadcast code) and BCAP (broadcast code) that “marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so” and “marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner”.
Also, in respect of verifiability, “before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.”
When the issue now being addressed is precisely disinformation and misinformation, why would political advertising at a minimum be brought into line with consumer advertising?
Create a body to regulate political advertising
It isn’t yet clear how all this is to be regulated. The report recommends, apparently only with reference to digital advertising: “that the possibility of the Advertising Standards Agency regulating digital advertising be considered as part of the Review. We ourselves plan to take evidence on this question this autumn, from the ASA themselves, and as part of wider discussions with DCMS and Ofcom”.
We believe there should be a separate regulator with overall responsibility for all political advertising.
We’d also urge clarity and specific detail in the final recommendations, and here advertising practitioners themselves can help.
As an example, in the recommendation below we see the report mentioning the need to develop a code of conduct for “social media” during election periods.
Similar techniques to those which have raised all this concern can be applied outside social media platforms in digital display, video and mobile formats.
It would make sense for recommendations to apply across the industry and not just to social platforms.
Also, in this particular example we would recommend allowing audiences to opt in rather than opt out of their data being used for targeted political advertising. That would bring it into line with data regulation and would better address the present general disquiet about data being used to target citizens inappropriately.
“The Electoral Commission should also establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods, giving consideration to whether such activity should be restricted during the regulated period to political organisations or campaigns that have registered with the Commission. Both the Electoral Commission and the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] should consider the ethics of Facebook or other relevant social media companies selling lookalike political audiences to advertisers during the regulated period, where they are using the data they hold on their customers to guess whether their political interests are similar to those profiles held in target audiences already collected by a political campaign. In particular, we would ask them to consider whether users of Facebook or other relevant social media companies should have the right to opt out from being included in such lookalike audiences.“
There are many other positive suggestions for safeguarding our democratic process in the report out yesterday.
It is good to see the progress that has been made, but we are also in no doubt that it is important for the marketing communications industry not only to put forward recommendations for positive change but also to offer suggestions about how the reports’ “principle based recommendations” can be implemented in practice.
You can read our original statement giving background on The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising here. We are a cross party initiative and not for profit.