Blog posts about the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

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  House of Commons DCMS Committee delivered a robust set of recommendations as part of its Disinformation & “Fake News” Inquiry.  They also supported several of the goals we’ve been advocating for political ad reform. In addition the Chair of the Inquiry, Damian Collins MP, 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.

April 2019

 

 

 

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.