New rules have just come into force at Google, banning political ads which target the public based on their political affiliations. (Targeting on the basis of age, gender and general location will be allowed to continue.)
Along with Facebook and Twitter, Google has been criticised for a lack of transparency over what political campaigns were pushing in the 2016 US presidential election and others since.
Campaigning has shifted increasingly to the online sphere, where party officials have been accused of micro-targeting political ads based on people’s personal and, in some cases, sensitive data (such as political views or sexual orientation). Such hyper-personal targeting has the potential to undermine the idea of a ‘national’ political debate – with citizens receiving different and highly personalised information during elections.
Before the launch of social media giants’ online ad ‘libraries’, it was almost impossible for journalists, civil society groups and voters to know what information and messages parties and campaigners were pushing to voters. So though admittedly flawed, these ad libraries are a step forward in enhancing transparency around political advertising.
Silicon Valley barons are responding in very different ways to the pressure for greater transparency. Twitter has just banned political ads altogether, though issue and cause advertising will still be allowed on the platform.
Outright bans on political ads do not stop parties or campaigners from disseminating misleading information, of course. BuzzFeed have highlighted a huge number of examples of misinformation and fake news this election, which social media giants are often reluctant to remove.
Zuckerberg recently revealed that despite facing pressure to reform its rules, Facebook would not take down ads containing false statements made and shared by politicians, and would ban fact-checkers from commenting on these ads.
At the end of the day, the conduct of our elections online is currently a ‘Wild West’ – with the likes of Twitter and Facebook setting the policy. At a time where digital campaigning is becoming ever-more crucial to electoral outcomes, that’s a problem. Surely voters are entitled to high quality debate, free from misleading information and fake news?
The Electoral Reform Society along with other democracy organisations are calling for greater accountability for social media platforms – with common standards on transparency when it comes to online ads, and a joint Code of Conduct for campaigners pledging not to spread misinformation or mislead voters.
Fundamentally, we need to ensure that the public has faith in the democratic process. In order to do this, the next government must bring our campaign rules into the 21st century and start to give the public real confidence in our elections again.
You can view Google’s new ad library here. What’s your verdict?
Sabine McGinley is a Placement Student for the ERS from the University of Nottingham.
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