The need for rules for political advertising content is as urgent as ever

On 29 January, we wrote an article for The Byline Times, ‘Political Ads that Lie Will Never Be Tamed Without Regulation’, which pointed out that an otherwise thorough report from a Cross-Party Group of MPs, ‘Defending Our Democracy in a Digital Age’, had missed a critical issue in failing to make recommendations that will establish an efficient and effective process of regulation of the content of electoral political advertising.

A response from the group was published, again in The Byline Times, with what we believe to be some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions, so we felt we should reply. We recognise that regulatory ping-pong does not attract large audiences, but this is an issue of great concern to voters.

The core of the APPG’s response, reacting to our YouGov finding that 9/10 voters believe that accuracy in political advertising should be ‘a legal requirement’, is to contend: ‘when you take it a step further and ask them who they believe is lying … the response is almost always the ‘other side’ – ‘who people believe is entirely dependent on how they vote.’ This view is attributed to ‘sources’, but those sources did not seem to include a significant sample of voters.

We recognise that there is inherent voter bias, especially among more committed party supporters, but the more likely voter response to ‘who is lying?’ is actually “all of them.” There is widespread distrust of all electoral political advertising among all voters. Besides, even if it were the case that it is ‘the other side’ who are deemed to be at fault, then surely that is an argument for those who feel that way to be able to complain about that other side to an independent authority? Why do strong feelings on any side make the idea of an arbiter less rather than more valuable?

A key recommendation of the APPG is a ‘fact-checker’ coalition. Clearly, there is merit in deploying fact checking in some way, but a) the way in which this might work is entirely unclear and b) there are a number of reasons why such a proposal does not and cannot address a significant proportion of the advertising that transgressed various rules in the 2019 General Election.

The fact-checker coalition (FCC) will apparently have “clear, transparent duties and fact-finding procedures to provide trustworthy, impartial information in areas of public concern. That body could at least offer a way to rebut certain factual statements. If done in collaboration with the sites on which most ads appear, these stories could be countered in real-time.” There would certainly be technical challenges in executing this with the numerous ads that appear weekly over an election period, but more importantly:

i) What will be the FCC’s status? Will it have powers and resource e.g. to pre-vet or to provide advice on planned party political advertising?

ii) Is the voter supposed to refer to the FCC? Will it have public recognition? Will there be a requirement, for example, for all advertising to reference the FCC?

iii) Is this a coalition of existing fact-checkers, for example the BBC’s or Full Fact, or is this a new fact-checking body in which case is there potential for conflict with the established fact-checkers?

The APPG might reasonably argue that the issues above can be addressed and that we are some way from the next election. To voters in major cities, of course, we’re not: elections happen in May of this year and there seems to be no particular reason why there shouldn’t be objective scrutiny of local elections in the same way as that which should be applied to national polls.

There is, however, another reason why an FCC doesn’t cut the electoral advertising mustard: many of the issues in the advertising that appeared in the 2019 election campaign were factually correct, but grossly misleading. We show two examples below:

This Liberal Democrat letter reproduced above, received in the Golders Green constituency, is signed by Mike Smithson, a ‘Polling and Elections Expert’. The letter sets out the potential impact of tactical voting, claiming that nearly 200 seats across the UK could be decided by Labour supporters voting tactically. The ‘imprint’ required by the Electoral Commission, very small in this case, shows that the letter is from the Liberal Democrats. Mike Smithson is also a former Liberal Democrat politician, a ‘fact’ not disclosed in the letter. Both the law and the self-regulatory system refer to misleadingness by omission; it’s difficult to check a fact when it (in most cases, deliberately) isn’t there.

The reference above is to the press office Twitter account for the Conservative party rebranding itself as factcheckUK for the duration of the leaders’ TV debate, issuing a series of ‘correcting’ statements on the Labour leader’s ‘lies’. Those corrections may or may not have been factually accurate – the issue is that this is also grossly misleading advertising as it purports to be from an objective fact-checking source when it is, closely scrutinised, actually from CCHQ. It should be noted that while Tweets are not per se paid for, they are considered to be within ASA remit in regulated advertising.

A further aspect of electoral advertising that would not be ‘caught’ by an FCC is the likes of the Brexit party advertising, reproduced below, that ran in Alyn and Deeside: ‘For the many, not the Jew’. The video ‘Vox-pops’ a number of members of the public, presumably Jewish, who explain their nervousness of a Corbyn government. The advertising states that the Labour party is anti-Semitic, and shows extracts from the Andrew Neill interview with Jeremy Corbyn. This is highly offensive advertising, but unlikely to be within the scope of any fact-checking service.

The Leveson problem, and the solution

The second element of the APPG response was to point to the ‘Leveson problem … when the actors themselves are given the power to regulate themselves, they don’t do much regulating.’ While respecting the point that those who don’t wish to be regulated aren’t proficient in regulation, we’re not too sure that the hundreds of thousands of advertisers who support the ASA – arguably the most effective and productive advertising self-regulatory organisation in the world – would accept that ‘they don’t do much regulating.’

The key to this issue is in the above reference to the willingness of the relevant actors: if politicians – Parliament specifically, not ‘Government’- won’t agree that there needs to be a robust regulatory process that prevents the egregious examples that voters were subjected to in the 2019 election, then it won’t happen, and that will be a considerable let-down of the 87% of voters who think it should.

The solution is not in our hands. It is in the hands of those politicians who accept that this situation – where effectively the only advertising that isn’t regulated is the most important advertising of all – can no longer continue. As soon as politicians agree that simple premise, then the business of bringing about regulation that will allow the concept of truth in electoral political advertising can begin to happen.

We request that the APPG reconsider the proposals set out in their paper linked above. We can make this happen together: we understand advertising and its regulation and you understand political process: between us, we should be able to right the wrongs in electoral political advertising?

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

 

 

A cross-party group has put forward good suggestions for modernising our outdated rules for elections. However, it doesn’t address the problem of lies in political ads. It needs to – and this is why.

Last week we passed another milestone towards modernising the rules for political advertising. A cross-party group of MPs called for a fairly comprehensive list of measures to update the rules relating to electoral and political advertising.

Only a very few groups have in recent years been advocating changing the rules governing our elections and political advertising, so it is great to see some of the measures we and others have been lobbying for included. We welcome, for example, the recommendation to have an independent database of ads to increase the transparency of political ads managed by the Electoral Commission, a key point we’ve been advocating. The cross-party group also make many sensible points which are outside the scope of our focus on political advertising, and these too would go some way towards making our elections fairer and more transparent.

It is, of course, essential for us to have MPs actively championing change in the House of Commons. We are a politically neutral organisation and have been seeking the support of MPs and organisations from across the political spectrum. The reality, however, is that meaningful reform doesn’t appear to be a priority for the current government. Our view is that the measures in the Queen’s Speech relating to reforming the rules around political advertising and elections, while welcome, are the bare minimum a government could have included if the topic was to appear on its agenda at all. Imprints on digital ads are in there, which is something we and all the other organisations have been advocating (including the Electoral Commission since the early 2000s). There is also a sentence about preventing foreign interference in elections, but it is so general that it isn’t clear what, if anything, this will lead to.

After all the disinformation rife in the 2019 UK general election it certainly seems time for MPs from all parties to reflect on whether they really want to participate in an arms race of disinformation techniques, and for a mindset of “win at all costs” to become the norm.

The report states it has a focus on three areas transparency, monitoring and deterrence. It is perhaps these areas of focus that have unfortunately led on the topic of disinformation to an essential, and we would say the key, reform being missed off an otherwise comprehensive agenda for change.

The overlooked elephant in the room is political ad content.

To qualify this statement, a reminder that the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising was set up by advertising practitioners with experience of running and measuring the impact of numerous ad campaigns for some of the UK’s best known brands.

Despite what a large part of the media narrative on the problematical issues of political advertising campaigns would have you believe, one of the biggest impacts of an ad campaign usually comes from the actual message in an ad, or of the campaign. When you think about, this is surely just common sense.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) provides a world-leading service in regulating what the advertising industry calls ‘content’, essentially the message. This includes everything about the ad itself, including what you can and can’t say in it. Astonishingly, political advertising is the one area the ASA does not have in its scope.

To simplify, here is how ad content regulation currently works: advertisers have a self-regulatory code they have agreed to abide by. If members of the public have an issue with an ad they can complain to the ASA, which is there as a backstop. Some two-thirds of the many complaints it receives relate to misleading claims made by advertisers.

The ASA decides whether it considers the ad to have breached the code. If advertisers are found to have transgressed, the ASA has various sanctions it can impose. The code advertisers have to abide by is extensive, as you can see for yourself here.

A key reform we have been advocating is introduction of a similar process for political ads in order, as the ad industry might say, to ensure substantiation of factual claims or, as the public might say, to stop the lying.

The public want this. YouGov research we commissioned over the election period showed that 87% of the UK public agreed ‘that it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts should be accurate’. The result was almost identical for members of the public whichever of the main parties they voted for and, incidentally, whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the Brexit referendum. You can view the raw data here.

The suggestions made by the cross-party group include a proposal to fact-check claims put out by the various parties. If this were implemented it would be a welcome development, but … think back to the election and the major misleading claims and lies called out by the media and independent fact-checking services like BBC Reality Check, Channel 4 Fact Check, and Full Fact. The same, discredited, claims continued to be made throughout the election period.

You can view our considerable fact base of misleading ads over the UK election in our review of the election period, Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful: how political advertising in the 2019 election let us downThe objective of our project was to gather evidence, across all the parties, of misleading claims in political ads. We used a team of volunteers to do this and, where we could, checked the claims using the above third-party fact checking services. To the best of our knowledge, none of the ads whose claims were shown to be false were withdrawn.

A key way advertising works is subconscious. Fact checking is an essential tool for fighting disinformation in a modern election, but it reaches only a relatively small proportion of the electorate, compared to the reach and frequency of a political ad campaign. And that is before taking into account the polarising effect once disinformation enters the echo chambers of social media.

What is being proposed by the cross-party group would not stop misleading ads continuing to be run, or parties blithely ignoring fact checks. Accordingly, it fails to address the key issue raised by the conduct of the last election.

Screenshot 2020-01-28 at 23.09.46

This claim is fact checked by Full Fact here https://fullfact.org/health/six-hospitals-not-forty.

Screenshot 2020-01-28 at 23.10.48

This is the Conservative video of Kier Starmer in which his replies to questions on Brexit were edited out.

LabourReConsUSdrugs

This Labour Facebook ad features a photoshopped bus and carries claims that the Conservatives have been in talks with the U.S. about ‘selling off’ the NHS. The £500m claim is fact checked here by Full Fact and none of the election fact checks we’ve seen corroborate the main claim.

https://fullfact.org/health/500-million-nhs-drug-prices/

Screenshot 2020-01-28 at 23.12.48

This Liberal Democrat letter is signed by Mike Smithson, a ‘Polling and Elections Expert’. The letter sets out the potential impact of tactical voting, claiming that nearly 200 seats across the UK could be decided by Labour supporters voting tactically. However, the small ‘imprint’ required by the Electoral Commission shows that the letter is from the LDs. Mike Smithson is also a former Liberal Democrat politician.

LibDemQuotesLeaflet5:11

This Liberal Democrats leaflet showed a series of quotes purporting to be from Sky News / The Guardian. The juxtaposition of the quotes and the titles intended to convey that the views expressed were those of the media concerned when they are in reality quotes from Jo Swinson.

You can see many more examples in our election review.

One of the reasons we ran the election project, apart from seeking to provide a significant body of evidence for why rules are needed for political ad content, was to counter arguments which claim political ad content ‘can’t be regulated’. Our experience of running ad campaigns, for example financial services ad campaigns which are considerably more tightly regulated than anything we are proposing, tells us that, as well as being desirable, it is entirely achievable. Hopefully our election review not only goes some way towards documenting the problem, but also proposes an entirely feasible solution.

Our solution is simple, and we are not attempting to reinvent the wheel. We merely suggest that some of the rules and processes which work for consumer ads should apply to political ads. In other words, political parties need to agree a self-regulatory code, and the remit of the ASA needs to be extended to ensure it is honoured.

Literally the only barrier to achieving this is political leadership. So we hope the cross-party group will reconsider this essential and key omission and support it too. We are continuing our campaigning efforts to promote this area, and would certainly welcome their support.

Alex Tait is the Co-Founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

You can follow the Coalition on Twitter @clearpolitic5

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising interviewed on the BBC News Channel

Political advertising can’t go on in the way it was executed in the 2019 UK election. If you like the work we’ve been doing over the election after watching the video below please donate to our crowdfunding page.

Alex Tait was interviewed as part of the BBC’s News Channel’s 100 days programme in the last week of the UK election. See a short clip featuring our YouGov research that showed 87% of the UK public support rules being put in place for factual claims in political ads.

YouGov data shows 87% of the UK public support rules for factual claims in political ads

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has conducted research with YouGov that shows there is overwhelming support for their to be rules for misleading claims in political ads whatever your political persuasion.

When asked the question “do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate?” the percentage that said “yes It should be a legal requirement” was, based on how they voted in the 2016 referendum:

  • Remain voters 90%
  • Leave voters 87%

The figure is similarly high when comparing it against how people voted in the 2017 election:

  • Conservatives 86%
  • Labour 92%
  • Liberal Democrats 97%

Sample Size: 1691 Adults in GB
Fieldwork: 4th – 5th December 2019

Source: YouGov

Support our campaign lobbying for changes in the rules around political advertisng here.

You can download the raw data here YouGov data_Dec 2019.