Without action now, this election is wide open to manipulation

Why the Open Knowledge Foundation is calling for a temporary Facebook ad ban.

The General Election campaign is barely underway, and already there are political adverts on Facebook sparking outrage.

The social media site has taken down government-funded advertising that was accused of targeting voters in marginal election constituencies, along with an ad from the ‘Fair Tax Campaign’ run by a former aide to Boris Johnson.

The latter claimed that Labour’s tax plans would cost people an extra £214 each month…yet the party has not even published its tax plans or its manifesto for December’s election.

Despite the clear disinformation, those behind that ad will be able to switch it back on if they register and insert a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer.

Sky, the BBC and other outlets are doing a god job of monitoring the online election campaign, and anyone who wants to help track any political ads targeting them during the campaign can install the Who Targets Me browser extension, set up during the last UK General Election in 2017.

It’s quite clear that electoral law in the UK has not kept up with changing nature of our politics. We have analogue laws for a digital age.

Take the issue of ‘imprints’ – the small print you will read on every election leaflet posted through your letterbox, which provide the legal-required transparency about who is campaigning.

The Electoral Commission has advocated this for online material since 2003, but only in May this year did the UK Government finally announce that online election material must clearly show who has produced it.

At the time, Minister for the Constitution Kevin Foster said: “We need to … ensure there are robust safeguards against hostile states, foreign lobbyists and shadowy third parties.”

But the proposed safeguards will not be in place in time for the General Election in December.

We don’t know the extent to which Russia has infiltrated British politics, and a report examining this won’t be published before the election either.

To ensure fairness and transparency, it’s clear that changes are required. This will require both regulatory changes, as well as persuading social media giants to take action themselves.

But, in the meantime, there is a temporary solution. Facebook should do the right thing and introduce an immediate moratorium on political adverts for the duration of the campaign.

It’s not a long-term solution, and we certainly don’t want to reach a situation where adverts for MPs’ surgeries and public meetings can’t be promoted.

But for the next few weeks, with Parliament dissolved, this election is too important to be blighted by disinformation.

Social media giants need to take greater responsibility for the political ads they receive cash for posting.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has joined with Mozilla, the Web Foundation, Demos, and other organisations to make this demand.

A suspension would be far from unique on the international stage. In the Irish referendum on abortion rights last year, Google blocked political advertising two weeks before polling day, and in the recent Israeli and Canadian elections political ads were blocked outright for the duration of the election period.

With the law too slow to change and Facebook itself too slow to address the concerns raised, it’s a necessary short-term trade-off.

After the election, the UK Government – as well as the EU – must act to require online platforms to provide more detailed information allowing the identification of malign actors, put pressure on Facebook, Google and others to increase transparency, and encourage closer working with fact checkers to prevent the spread of disinformation.

The best way to tackle disinformation is to make information open, allowing journalists, developers and the research community to carry out analysis of disinformation operations.

Ultimately, governments and social media platforms must work harder to build a fair, free and open digital world.

Catherine Stihler is Chief Executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation.

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2 Responses to “Without action now, this election is wide open to manipulation”

  1. Gary

    i notice that NONE of the political parties are backing this call for a ban on political advertising on Facebook. We should wonder why, shouldn’t we?

    It reminds me of the issue of ‘Battle Buses’ during election campaigns which was broken open by Channel 4 News. This had been an ongoing issue for YEARS. ALL of the parties had campaigned LOCALLY using buses coming out of Central Funds which then didn’t show up in the local campaigning costs. EVERY SINGLE PARTY did this, they ALL broke the rules and so NONE could report the other, a kind of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ (but without the gentlemen)

    They are ALL hoping to drive a bus through the regulations and break spending regulations, lie, mislead and propagandise their way through this campaign – AGAIN.

    We can’t trust politicians to self regulate, we know this. But they are already exempt from rules on truthfulness in advertising and now they will abuse this (relatively) new platform to lie EVEN MORE as they can claim not to be connected to advertisements, memes etc. All sides will do this and they think they’ll be doing it better than the other lot so why report them for what they themselves are ALSO doing.

    I saw this up close and personal when I was targeted by dodgy advertisements and memes from the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. Alistair Darling, his office and his personal associates produces a stream of lies and propaganda which would NOT have been legal in any other setting. They breached campaign rules and made me ashamed to have ever voted Labour.

    But I’m being unfair, now the Tories are getting in on the kind of vile behaviour Darling exhibited back then too.

    Again, it’s being left to a few brave individuals to raise this as an issue. Our politicians want a free for all, they want the kind of ‘attack ads’ that proliferate on US television during political campaigns, Trumpian language and action too.

    We HAVE to stand up to them and tell them we aren’t going to take it. They are the least of us but they would have us believe that somehow, in their ivory towers they care. They don’t…

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    As a Labour MSP for Scotland for many years, Ms Stihler was a purveyor of misinformation about Scottish independence. During the 13 years of Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, Labour had huge majorities and could have amended the electoral legislation.

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