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We now have a campaign pledge as well as an overall framework for international political ad reform

Alex Tait

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We are in the process of translating this page into 10 languages.

We started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in the UK in May last year when, so far as we could see, there was no other plan for reform. Our campaign has developed rapidly since then.

As well as endorsement by numerous organisations and individuals in the UK, we now have the support of two of the main UK political parties – The Independent Group for Change and, as of July, The Green Party. We are actively in conversation with the other main parties to persuade them too to support the changes we advocate. Our ambition is to sign up all the main parties.

As our campaign has progressed, it has become increasingly obvious that mature democracies across the globe are facing precisely the same problem – outdated rules for political advertising and disinformation in the digital age. Political ad reform is now being discussed in several countries, and we want to share the key principles we’ve developed in the hope that this will help like-minded organisations abroad with lobbying in their own countries.

We are sharing two international frameworks we have developed. These are, firstly, our International Framework for Political Ad Reform, launched in May this year and aimed at producing legislative change. You can read it here.

Secondly, this week we are launching an international campaign pledge that can be adopted by political parties ahead of any legislative change. In the UK and several other countries, there is a convention that at election time political parties sign up to principles or a “pledge” which they promise to abide by in the electoral process. If this precedent exists in the country you live in, and also if it doesn’t yet, we think that encouraging political parties and other advertisers to adopt the practice is an important way to accelerate political advertising reform. This is needed because, even once that significant milestone has been reached where a Government agrees to legislative change, the process of implementation usually takes quite a while. For example, in the UK two of the points in our four-point plan have so far been supported by the Government, but the change won’t come into force until 2020 or 2021.

We recommend that, particularly where the convention of pledging already exists, both frameworks should be used in parallel. As well as effecting change in how political advertisers conduct their campaigns, bringing greater integrity and transparency into electoral processes, the two-pronged approach can also increase awareness of the proposed solutions and build consensus. The International Framework for Political Ad Reform provides guidance on how to bring about the core changes to legislation that we are recommending.

As a politically neutral, not-for-profit organisation, we don’t want ownership of either of these approaches. We are just keen to share our ideas with other countries facing similar issues.

Needless to say, as with the initial framework, these points aren’t exhaustive. We selected the four points because they represented plain common sense and would be hard to argue against, so we could build agreement quickly. At the same time, these were the areas we believed would have the greatest impact. There are obviously other areas that will need to be considered carefully, and that will vary by country: for example, limits and controls around spending, and ensuring your campaign complies with privacy laws.

We’ve used some UK examples below, but let common sense be the judge of how far each point is appropriate in your country, how it can best be landed, and how the pledge itself should be worded.

We propose that the campaign pledge should be along the following lines:

We, the <name of party>, will practice responsible election campaigning and pledge:

  1. to include information in all our digital advertising which enables voters to identify the ad as ours;
  2. to publish our digital paid-for advertising content on a publicly available webpage;
  3. to share the substantiation of any objective factual claims used in ads on a publicly available webpage or on the ad itself;
  4. to revise or suspend claims that nominated independent fact-checking services find to be misleading.

1. To include information in all our digital advertising which enables voters to identify the ad as ours.

We believe there should be Imprints / watermarks on all digital ads as per the UK Electoral Commission’s suggestion that “all electronic campaigning should have easily-accessible digital imprint requirements, including information on the publishing organisation and who is legally responsible for the spending”.

2. To publish our digital, paid-for advertising content on a publicly available webpage.*

  • Who is paying for the ads?
  • Which organisations are sponsoring the ads?
  • Which audience is being targeted by the ads?

The above criteria were recommended by the report of the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport OnDisinformation & “Fake News”. Their aim is to ensure transparency of campaign messaging and to avoid “dark ads”. We believe that this would be a temporary measure until the “publicly accessible searchable repository [for political ads] run independently of political parties and the ad industry”, recommended in the report, is available.* Some of the online platforms have developed ad libraries, but they are, and always will be, of varying and inconsistent functionality. For example, on Twitter’s ad library ads are currently available only for 7 days. As our framework suggests, to ensure transparency we need a database that will show ads consistently across all platforms and media owners.

3. To share the substantiation of any objective factual claims used in ads on a publicly available webpage or on the ad itself.

Substantiation of objective factual claims could be included in the ad itself, or published independently and publicly together with any digital ads being used in the campaign.

4. To revise or suspend claims that nominated independent fact-checking services find to be misleading.

In the UK, all non-political ads which appear on TV or VOD and make factual claims are already, in ad terminology, “pre -cleared” by an organisation called Clearcast. This is an advisory service for advertisers which they can choose to ignore. However, the ad regulator, the  Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), rules on complaints that are submitted to it, and will take into account the advice of Clearcast in any ruling.

In the absence of a code or a regulator for political ads, we suggest using common sense in weighing the accuracy of your substantiation. You should, however, publish the source of the substantiation in the ad itself or on the same webpage as your digital ads. If one of the nominated fact-checking services finds the objective factual claims to be misleading, the advertiser should take that feedback on board and consider revising or suspending adverts containing those claims. This is a “proxy” for the role we advocate in our framework that a regulator would / should play.

It is obviously important that the fact-checking service or services chosen are respected as independent by the main parties in your country. To give an example, in the UK we have nominated three fact-checking services: Full Fact, Channel 4 FactCheck and BBC Reality Check.

This pledge is a beginning. We will update the points in it as we receive feedback.

August 2019


* We have prioritised transparency in digital ads to stop what are known as “dark” digital political ads (only viewable by the members of the public at whom they are targeted). However, we recommend you consider asking advertisers to take this a step further, and to publish also all non-digital, paid-for adverts in order to maximise transparency

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