The House of Lords’ report ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust’ is a profoundly important document. The challenge now is how the recommendations are turned into action.

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We write as the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising; our concern, therefore, is largely with the issue of advertising within the bigger and broader subject of misinformation and disinformation so well explored by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies in their report of 29th June 2020 ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.’

The Report’s conclusions on political advertising are sound and very welcome, the recommendations cover all the points we have been campaigning for over several years. Most importantly we’d argue that the content of electoral political advertising should be regulated by the application of a Code of Conduct drawn up between a committee of existing regulators (The ASA, the Electoral Commission, the ICO and Ofcom) and political parties.

This is a major milestone – the first time that a significant parliamentary appointed committee has advocated the regulation of the content of electoral political advertising. It also comes after another development last month when the Advertising Standards Authority updated its official position to state that political advertising should be regulated.

We thank Lord Puttnam and the committee for their leadership in including this as one of the key recommendations of this comprehensive report.

However, our ultimate objective is the actioning of this recommendation. In common with many reports of this type, the ‘what’ is clear but the ‘how’ is not set out. In other words, there is no clear identification of specific next steps, which players are responsible for those, and by when action needs to be taken.

By way of example, the recommendation that (36): ‘The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum. This regulatory committee should adjudicate breaches of this code.’ Who does what next, therefore? What is their mandate to do that? Why should political parties come to the table?

In addition the Committee’s explorations, both in the general realm of misinformation and the specific territory of advertising reveal some challenges in turning the recommendations into legislation or other actions that will deliver the objective.

For example, the report has many references to the inconsistencies, evasions and obfuscations of the platforms and politicians under scrutiny.

We firmly believe the committee’s recommendation is the right side of history on this issue. The election in December was the perfect case study to demonstrate why change is needed. Independent regulators want regulation to happen, voters want regulation to happen. We now urgently need political leadership on the issue.

 


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Our response to the ASA’s call that “British political advertising must be regulated”

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First, we should acknowledge and respect that some events are so shocking that they prevent consideration of just about any others. They stop you in your routine tracks, command most of your thoughts and lead you to wonder if we have made any progress at all in how we behave towards each other. So this intrusion is made with deference to those events and to the people directly or indirectly affected by them. 

You might reasonably think, therefore, that introducing the issue of reform of political advertising feels a little like advertising itself: a not-always-welcome interruption of subjects that are of more interest or import. On the other hand, you might also respect, as most do, that advertising is both commercially essential and that it can and does play a significant and positive role in society. 

Our topic, however, is not any old advertising – it’s political advertising, or to be more precise, political advertising that has, often famously, played a role in the election of governments or our departure from Europe. To those who are unaware, this form of advertising remains unregulated and it has been the mission of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising for the past several years to change that unhappy and almost ridiculous situation.

That is why we welcome with all the warmth we can muster in these socially cold times the article in today’s Guardian from Guy Parker, the CEO of the Advertising Standards Authority, who states the ASA are ‘ready to help.’ At last, an important head above the parapet and while we respect that the ASA may not be ‘the right body to lead political advertising regulation’, neither would the task be properly delivered without their skills, experience and reputation. 

We share the view that delivering a solution is ‘challenging’, but the real challenge is not lack of expertise, as Guy Parker points out, but the political will to listen to the 87% of voters who think that electoral advertising, as with any other, should be subject to regulation. 

The advertising of a bar of chocolate is subject to three laws and several codes of conduct; political advertising has more consequence, but the liberties that it takes as a result of the liberties provided leave a bitter taste for the great majority and cause profound offense to many.

We applaud Guy Parker and the ASA he leads for this significant contribution to long overdue reform in political advertising.

The Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising 


We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. Please consider donating to our campaign here. We rely on donations to continue our work. 

We need specific recommendations from the Electoral Commission on how to deal with disinformation in elections

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The Electoral Commission has changed its tone on disinformation in elections and referendums. That is a good development for democracy, but specific recommendations are needed on how to deal with the problem.

Our campaign to reform the rules around political advertising is two years old this month. It is extraordinary, as we’ve pointed out many times, that for all the talk and recommendations from a number of inquiries over the last few years there is still no sign of moves to introduce effective change in this area.

For content in electoral political advertising there are almost no rules. As advertising practitioners we were baffled by the glaring inconsistency between the rigorous standards of the Advertising Standards Authority in consumer advertising and the absence of anything remotely comparable for electoral advertising. In setting up the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising a key area we called for reform in were rules to prevent misleading material claims or, as the general public calls it, lying.

There could have been no more graphic demonstration of the need for reform than the 2019 general election. We documented blatantly misleading advertising from all the main parties in our review of the election period: our report was trenchantly titled Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful: how political advertising in the 2019 general election let us down.

We feel that we have now reached a crucial moment with public frustration at this arms race of disinformation. We suspect that some of this is due to the fact that the Covid-19 coronavirus has shown that similar techniques can not only be corrosive for democracy in elections, they can also have lethal consequences in the context of a global pandemic.

The Electoral Commission’s policies regarding electoral advertising have historically focused on such admittedly important areas as campaign funding and transparency to the virtual exclusion of what is communicated in adverts.

Accordingly, reading the Commission’s review released last month of the 2019 UK election we welcome how their position appears to have developed. They note there, as one of three key challenges posed by evolving election campaign strategies, that ‘misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust in election campaigns’. They comment in the review that ‘democracies rely on campaigners being able to communicate with voters. In return, voters need to be able to trust the information that campaigners are giving them’.

This very welcome step forward has evidently been prompted by the Electoral Commission’s researching of public attitudes. The level of public concern they found mirrors our own YouGov research, in which we asked the UK public, ‘Do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate’. No less than 87% of respondents answered that it should.

Now the Electoral Commission observes that ‘At the 2019 general election, voters were concerned about the use of misleading campaign techniques by campaigners from across the political spectrum. During the campaign period, we reminded campaigners that voters are entitled to transparency and integrity, and called on all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly.’

They continue, ‘There is evidence from our research after the election that concerns about truthfulness and transparency are having an impact on public trust and confidence:

  • More than half of people (58%) agreed with the statement that, in general, “campaigning online is untrue or misleading”
  • A similar proportion (60%) disagreed that “information available online about politics is trustworthy”.’

Given the many recommendations made over the last few years in a number of reports, including the Disinformation and Fake News report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Electoral Commission’s paragraph proposing steps to be taken is disappointingly light on detail.

They state ‘we have signalled our concern about these issues before. If voters lose trust and confidence in political campaigning, democracy as a whole will suffer. Campaigners, candidates and parties themselves need to take greater responsibility for the presentation and content of campaigns they run and the impact of their activities on public confidence in elections.

We cannot afford to miss the window of opportunity between now and the next scheduled general election. There needs to be real change to protect trust and confidence in campaigns at future elections and the integrity of our democracy. It will take governments, parties, campaigners, social media companies and regulators to work together to agree new laws or standards of conduct. We will support this work.’

Given the escalation we are seeing in discreditable political campaigning techniques, it is simply not sufficient to urge political advertisers to show greater responsibility: in our review of the election we recommended that the Advertising Standards Authority should be given teeth to enforce these ‘laws or standards of conduct’.

Through conversations with MPs and Lords, the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has gained many supporters for its proposals, most recently from the All-Party Group for Compassionate Politics, which was launched in March and is chaired by Baroness Warsi and Debbie Abrahams MP.

We’ve also given evidence to the House of Lords’ Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies which is due to report its recommendations in June.

To be clear, we really do welcome the direction of recommendations in the Electoral Commission’s report. We continue to lobby for this essential reform and are very willing to assist in drafting the detail of how it could be implemented.

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.

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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/

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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