It’s time to separate the real from the make believe

Today we are launching a new campaign “separate the real from the make believe” which demands legislation to stop lies in political advertising.

Our three eye-catching adverts are now live across outdoor poster sites, social media and lots of popular websites.

As the likelihood of a second Brexit referendum or snap election increases the need for urgent change to political advertising legislation grows too.

The time has come to stop political campaigns being free to make wild and unsubstantiated claims.

For there to be change we need the political parties to agree to it. The only way that is going to happen is by showing the public demands it.

Sign this petition to show your support for reform in the rules around political advertising.

According to a new YouGov survey commissioned by The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising and FullFact 84% of voters think there should be a legal requirement for factual claims in political advertisements to be accurate.

We are calling on the DCMS Select Committee inquiry on Disinformation and ‘fake news’ – led by Damian Collins MP – to include our four-point plan in their recommendations, due out in December.

Benedict Pringle, co-founder of the Coalition, says: “When false claims are made during election campaigns, it undermines the moral authority of the result and increases voters’ distrust in politics more generally.”

Alex Tait, co-founder of the Coalition continues: “Lies from one political group muddies the waters for all of them (even the ones that tell the truth). Dishonest political advertising is damaging our democracy. It’s time for a change.”

The four-point plan is:

  1. Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared
  2. Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so
  3. Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public on a single searchable website (so groups can’t hide dishonest ads from anybody)
  4. Require political advertisers to carry an imprint or watermarks to show the sponsor of the advert

Phil Smith, Director General of ISBA, the body who represent the UK’s leading advertisers, says: “ISBA supports the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising’s 4-point plan and agrees there is urgency for there to be agreement in how political advertising should be more closely regulated ahead of any potential upcoming electoral processes.”

To join the Coalition sign up here and help fund our campaign war chest by donating here.

Release of Vote Leave adverts bolster case for reforming political advertising

We believe that the Vote Leave ads released yesterday by Facebook validate a four-point plan we have been advocating since we launched it in May. The plan proposes reforming political advertising in the following ways:

  1. Legislate so that all paid-for political advertisements can be viewed by the public
  2. Create a body to regulate political advertising
  3. Require all factual claims in political advertisements to be pre-cleared
  4. Introduce obligatory watermarks to show the origin of online advertisements

Yesterday Facebook released 1,433 of Vote Leave’s targeted Brexit ads to a committee of MPs investigating fake news. No matter what your political persuasion, it must seem incredible that many of these ads were used in any form of voting campaign given that many contained clear untruths.

They were also implemented as ‘dark advertising’, meaning that they were visible only to the advertisement’s publisher and the intended target group.

In support of the reforms we’re recommending, we invite you to consider some examples from the ads released yesterday against our points.

Create a body to regulate political advertising

Many of the ads would have fallen foul of current consumer advertising legislation policed by the Advertising Standards Authority, but political advertising is not regulated in the same way. As we’ve regularly pointed out, few members of the general public know that. We’ve previously explained our position on creating a body to regulate political advertising, as you can read here.

Obligatory watermarks to show the origin of online advertisements

It is not clear in many of the messages released by Facebook that they are in fact political ads. This example was targeted at animal lovers, and is one of many examples where no imprint or watermark was used.

animals vote leave

Here is another, targeted at older voters, reacting to Obama’s intervention in the referendum debate. As advertising practitioners, we think it is worth pointing out as an example and as reported by the BBC the targeting wasn’t inconsequential: it had a reach of up to 25% among women aged over 65, and a different version targeted 23% of men in the same age group.

Obama vote leave

Messaging transparency

Virtually none of these ads were available for scrutiny by citizens and journalists until Facebook were forced to submit them to the committee.

Since the Cambridge Analytica story broke, the major platforms have committed to some positive steps to provide greater transparency in political advertising. It isn’t enough, though, to rely on the goodwill of all the numerous platforms and media owners whose services are available to political parties for targeted political advertising.

We need legislation to ensure consistent transparency, and we welcome and support implementation of one of the recommendations made a few weeks ago by the Independent Commission on Referendums. That recommendation mirrored our own position since launch that we need industry-wide standards to ensure transparency, rather than trying to rely on platform-specific solutions.

A key recommendation put forward was that ‘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.’

The recommendations put forward by the Independent Commission on Referendums, and last month by the Electoral Commission, are only advisory. We need parliament to show the will to turn these recommendations into legislation.

Requiring all factual claims in political adverts to be pre-cleared 

One argument put forward against the signing off of assertions of fact is that in an election process their numbers are insignificant. Another [also put forward by the Independent Commission on Referendums, incidentally] is that it is impossible to make definitive judgements on the objective truth of political claims and statements. The corpus of ads clearly shows a significant number of assertions of fact in the referendum, including those below. These ads demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to make an objective judgement on assertions of fact and ‘substantiation’ provided by a political advertiser.

We’ve shown in the past that misleading claims were also made by the Remain camp in the referendum, such as this one (to which we’ve attached an assessment by independent fact checkers).

Remain lies

To summarise, we are passionate about responsible advertising. Our campaign has been set up by practitioners in the UK marketing industry and we now have a groundswell of support for what we are advocating from many individuals, companies and trade organisations working in the UK advertising industry. This includes a supportive statement from the UK ad trade body ISBA and such other high profile organisations that have joined our Coalition as eConsultancy and the online retail trade body IMRG.

Join us in demanding change. We need to seize the opportunity presented by the current heightened interest and awareness of these issues to ensure we modernise the way political advertising is regulated in a digital world. Read more about our Coalition and sign up to support us here https://reformpoliticaladvertising.org.

The BBC has written a brief summary of the ads released yesterday which you can read here You can also view more of the ads here.

We are keen to emphasise at the outset that the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising is a cross-party initiative advocating change in the way political ads are regulated. We would therefore welcome the same transparency from Facebook on the messaging used in the Remain campaign’s Facebook ads in the EU referendum as they have provided on the Leave campaign.

Electoral Commission report diagnoses problems but ducks difficult solutions

The Electoral Commission has published a report which provides an analysis of the problems posed by digital campaigning and a set of recommendations to remedy them.

The Electoral Commission’s acknowledgment of the concern and confusion it found amongst voters whilst researching the issue of campaign transparency is very helpful.

Much of the mainstream media have characterised those concerned about decaying democratic norms as a small number of sore losers; we now have strong evidence to the contrary.

The diagnoses of our democratic ailments is the best part of the report. Unfortunately, the solutions proposed are firmly within the Electoral Commission’s comfort zone and will do little to promote lasting change.

Campaigns can continue to lie in their advertisements

The Electoral Commission research highlights that voters’ concerns relate to “both the content and source” of political advertising.

The report explores solutions to problems relating to uncertainty around “the source” of ads but doesn’t address voters’ worries around misleading content.

The Electoral Commission simply states that “we are not in a position to monitor the truthfulness of campaign claims”.

There is not a single mention in the report as to how they propose to remedy this situation.

Given that one of the functions required of the Electoral Commission is to “make recommendations about how to improve the fairness and transparency of our democracy” that’s a fairly significant omission.

The issue of campaigners using deliberately misleading factual claims is the elephant in the room of political advertising regulation and the Electoral Commission have again tried to ignore it.

Passing the buck

The Electoral Commission says it is positive that social media companies are planning to create databases of all the UK election adverts run on their platforms.

Their hope is that they “publish their data in the same format”; one assumes that if the tech companies are happy to oblige the Electoral Commission they will create a single overarching database.

The report could have called for legislation that requires political campaigners to publish every advert they produce directly to a database run by the Electoral Commission.

This more radical approach would put UK Parliaments more in control of their election campaigns and make them less reliant on the good will of the social media companies; it would prevent political campaigners using platforms or media owners who have yet to pledge to keep databases of political ads; it would future-proof against new platforms that emerge (who are unlikely to prioritise political advert transparency).

Putting all the burden on these companies, rather than the creators of the ads and the Electoral Commission, is shirking the responsibility of running fair and transparent elections.

The tech companies’ databases would be a useful way to check that political campaigners are indeed publishing their work to the Electoral Commission site. However, relying on them as the only source of transparency is lazy and risky.

The report says that if the self-regulation doesn’t work “the UK’s governments and legislators should consider direct regulation”.

Given how infrequently Parliament changes electoral law, taking a “wait and see” approach is missing a rare opportunity to change things for the better and leaves our elections more open to future manipulation than is necessary.

Theres no one in charge and thats fine

The foreword of the Electoral Commission’s report acknowledges “that no single body is responsible for all the concerns raised by digital campaigning”.

Given the scale and complexity of the problems that the report goes on to detail, it seems odd that the Electoral Commission doesn’t demand the powers that would make themselves responsible.

The Electoral Commission’s comfort zone is delivery of elections (ballot papers, reminders to vote etc…), regulating political finance and monitoring campaign spending.

This is particularly apparent in the fact that 11 of their 17 recommendations are related to campaign spending.

But the world has moved on and reporting on who has spent what is no longer enough.

The Electoral Commission must either take up the challenge presented by digital campaigning or propose a reduction to their remit and the creation of a body that can.

New ‘deepfake’ technology an emerging threat and another reason to regulate

Benedict Pringle, co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, has written for Campaign, a leading marketing trade publication, about why emerging ‘deepfake’ video technology is another reason to regulate political advertising.

Deepfake is a technology that allows people to create fairly realistic face-and-voice-swap videos.

Benedict argues that the technology is going to get more realistic, be easier to use and will be like a turbocharged version of ‘fake news’. He went on to say:

If we want to prevent deepfake video (and other future technologies with potential to unjustly distort debate) becoming a feature of our democracy, we need a framework for regulating what is and isn’t permissible in election advertising.

You can read the full article here.

Leading advertiser body ISBA endorses Coalitions demands

ISBA, the body which represents the leading UK advertisers, have endorsed our four point plan to reform political advertising.

Phil Smith, Director General of ISBA, said:

We welcome the Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising initiative which aligns with our publicly stated position that political advertising in the UK requires greater transparency and regulation.

We would endorse the proposed remedies by the Coalition as all worthy of consideration by government and regulators. Some are already being embraced by individual industry players. ISBA is keen to continue to participate and contribute its thoughts on behalf of responsible advertisers on this highly important and sensitive issue.

ISBA are a hugely influential lobby with regulators, platform owners and government and so we are delighted to have them aligned with our proposals.