An international framework for political ad reform

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We started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May last year when, so far as we knew, there was no plan to reform it. Our campaign his developed at a rapid pace since then. An early supporter of our aims was the UK advertising trade body ISBA, and we’ve since gained support from numerous other organisations in the ad industry, and companies, citizens and not-for-profits outside of it, along the way.

In February 2019 the UK Government’s Disinformation & “Fake News” Inquiry delivered a robust set of recommendations to tackle disinformation, supporting several of the goals we’ve been advocating for political ad reform. The Chair of the Inquiry, Damian Collins MP, also put out a call to the ad industry for a political ad code in September last year that supported all our aims.

Exactly the same issues face digitally mature democracies across the globe, of course. While political ad reform is now being discussed in various countries, we wanted to share key principles we’ve developed in case like-minded organisations want to take up lobbying in countries outside the UK.

This list isn’t by any means exhaustive. In putting our 4-point plan together we wanted to gain momentum for the campaign by targeting areas it was hard to argue against, and which would also have the biggest impact.  You can view other suggestions for political ad reform in the UK’s Disinformation & Fake News Inquiry report here.

Our intention isn’t ourselves to mount similar campaigns abroad to the one we are running in the UK. We are sharing our overall framework as a starting point that can and should develop over time, and may also need to be adapted to local regulation and issues.

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising is a not-for-profit and we have no desire to have ownership of the framework or its content. We are sharing these ideas as an urgent starting point for reform in other digitally mature countries.  If you’d like to get in touch to discuss them, or for advice on how you can set up a similar campaign in  your own country, please contact alex.tait@reformpoliticaladvertising.org.

Reform we believe should be common to all digitally mature democracies.

1/  Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public.

A searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. The repository should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Facebook and Google have already made changes of their own accord, which deserve to be commended, but we need industry-wide standards rather than just platform-specific solutions.

2/  Introduce compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online adverts. In the UK, registered political parties and campaign groups are currently required by law to include an imprint (read: watermark) on hard copy election materials which makes clear who is responsible for the advertising.

There is, however, no such requirement for digital communications.

Given that almost anyone can make and disseminate digital political advertising, knowing what is “official” and what is being posted by over-eager supporters will become an increasingly important way for voters to discern how seriously to take political messages they happen upon. A requirement for a digital imprint would be one way of helping them to do this.

Reform we believe is right for the UK and that you should consider for your country.

3/  Require all objective factual claims used in political adverts to be  substantiated.

If a campaign wants to make an apparently objective and quantifiable claim in its political advertising, that claim should be accurate and stand up to independent scrutiny.

We’re not calling for an end to hopeful promises or scaremongering about what the other side might do: we’re simply saying that if you want to position something as a fact, the public have a right to be confident that it is just that.

The UK has a pre-clearance process already in place for misleading claims via its BCAP and CAP advertising codes for all TV and VOD consumer advertising. We believe that for the UK this process should apply to political claims of objective fact also.

4/  Create a body to regulate political advertising.

We need a body to oversee the content of political advertising. There is no regulation of this in the UK, and that fact is a principal cause of many of the recent problems.

The UK parliament could resolve that by extending the remit of either the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority or the Election Committee of Ofcom – or it could set up an alternative body.

The above 4 points constitute the 4-point plan we launched with in May. However, we think the following areas also require urgent consideration.

Targeting

In the UK, the Disinformation & Fake News Inquiry has recommended that a “Code of Practice which highlights the use of personal information in political campaigning and applying to all data controllers who process personal data for the purpose of political campaigning should be underpinned by primary legislation.”

We also think the following principles are important

1. When regulation is discussed there is often an understandable focus on digital, as there has been in the DCMS report. There is no doubt that regulation of political advertising woefully needs to be brought up to date with the digital world we now live in. However, to take regulation of factual claims as an example, it needs to apply to all media, not only to digital

2. Similarly, because there has been extensive news coverage of privacy issues on Facebook, it can be tempting to single out that platform as being in need of reform. While Facebook is obviously a very important actor, the digital marketing ecosystem is complex, as anyone who works in marketing will testify. Social platforms are important, but the need is for updated regulation to cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem if we are to counter disinformation and fake news effectively.

3. We’d add that advertisers increasingly look at their communications in terms of a “customer journey” that takes account of all the touchpoints with consumers in the fragmented media landscape we now inhabit. From a UK perspective, we agree with the Independent Commission on Referendums that “An inquiry should be conducted into the regulation of political advertising across print, broadcast and online media, to consider what form regulation should take for each medium and whether current divergences of approach remain justified.” For example, account needs to be taken not only of paid adverts, but also of what marketers call “owned media”: all the communication channels under an entity’s control, such as websites, blogs, email – and also “earned media”, such as publicity resulting from editorial influence of various kinds.

Alex & Benedict

 

 

 

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