ERS: Facebook’s refusal to tackle ‘microtargeting’ and misinformation shows it’s time for regulators to step in

Posted on the 10th January 2020

  • Statement for immediate release from the Electoral Reform Society. Spokespeople are available for broadcast interviews. Contact [email protected] / 07717211630

Commenting on the announcement that Facebook will continue to continue to allow misinformation in political ads, as well as ‘microtargeting’ of small groups of voters under its new ad rules [1], Dr Jess Garland – Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“The lack of common standards when it comes to online ad libraries and the spread of highly refined microtargeting, risks undermining the concept of a genuinely national and open debate. When campaigns can pick off groups of voters or pit them against each other, democratic debate is undermined.

“This latest announcement is another sign we can’t leave our election rules in the hands of Silicon Valley giants. We need clear, transparent campaign rules for the 21st century, to protect our democracy from dark ads, dodgy donors and disinformation.

“Though exact figures are hard to obtain through Facebook’s ads library, parties and third-party campaigners spent around £5.9 million on Facebook alone during the election campaign [2].

“It’s up to government, not the tech giants, to rein in this wild west. We’ve made concrete proposals for reform and the government has promised to modernise our electoral laws. However, we have had too much talk and not enough action. Let’s ensure our electoral laws are not left scrabbling behind the technology.”

The last time UK campaign rules were properly updated was in 2000 [3] – before most households had access to the internet, and several years before Facebook was founded.

Facebook banned the use of fact-checking of political posts last year [4], triggering concern from anti-disinformation groups.

More evidence for the need for strong safeguards on transparency was shown was Facebook’s online ad database crashed a few days before the election, with thousands of ads disappearing –hindering the work of those researching political advertising on Facebook.

The ERS are working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaign Transparency [5].

The 2019 election saw repeated concerns raised over the targeting of small groups of voters by opaque Facebook pages [6].

ENDS

Notes to Editors

Read the ERS’ September briefing on the state of regulation on tech giants: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/parliamentary-briefings/fair-and-free-ensuring-the-integrity-of-elections-in-the-uk/

[1] https://thehill.com/policy/technology/477486-facebook-will-still-allow-misinformation-micro-targeting-under-new-ad-rules

[2] See our 2019 General Election briefing: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/parliamentary-briefings/ers-general-election-2019-briefing/

[3] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/41/contents

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/oct/04/facebook-exempts-political-ads-ban-making-false-claims

[5] https://fairvote.uk/electoral-campaigning-transparency/

[6] See e.g. “An ex-Vote Leave staffer is running Facebook ads pushing the Greens” https://www.wired.co.uk/article/vote-leave-3rd-party-green-party 

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