Political advertising bans: saving democracy or censoring speech?

10th December 2019 by Flagship Consulting

Political advertising on social media has been an important, not to mention controversial, topic in the news over the past few years.  With such a huge reach, these platforms present an opportunity to communicate with audiences en masse, across various demographics and in very targeted ways. However, this communication doesn’t always measure up to ethical standards; some fear that political advertising puts democracy as we know it at risk. In the countdown to the UK’s impending election, the role of social media in informing political views has been at the forefront of voter analysis.

The impact of social media messaging is hard to overstate: a recent Ofcom report revealed that almost half of people in the UK use social media for news, staying informed by scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Facebook now has 2.45 billion users worldwide- more than triple the population of Europe. Perhaps even more significant than the sheer reach of advertising on social media is the extent to which advertisers can target their messaging. Described as one of the world’s most destructive trends, targeted advertising can lead to the proliferation of fake news, pervasive tracking, and clickbait.

All these concerns, while significant in any field, are exacerbated when it comes to political advertising. Choosing between parties and politicians is a difficult decision, even before we take into account ads on Twitter and Facebook. When these are factored in, the electorate is potentially bombarded with a multitude of contrasting, confusing, or even entirely fictional information.

But, of course, information does need to be broadcast to the public, and there is no perfect way of doing so. The political leanings of different newspapers and television outlets are well-known, and objectivity is elusive – some may even say that advertising on social media helps to democratise political discourse. However, this ignores another issue at play, as paid-for political advertising reinforces a problematic age-old adage: money is power. Those with the financial resources to pay for millions of pounds worth of advertising on social media have the ability to shout their messages from the rooftops – while those without the resources are drowned out.

Social media platforms are beginning to take more accountability for the advertising content they show – and advertising is slowly starting to become more transparent. Twitter has banned political advertising entirely, with its CEO stating “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought”. Facebook, however, has rejected this move, with its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggesting that similar action would be undemocratic. In a CBS interview, he asserted that “people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying [and…] should be able to judge for themselves the character of politicians.”

This makes sense- in order to make an educated decision about who to support, individuals need to have access to politicians’ ideas and campaign policies, and social media makes it possible to facilitate this for huge numbers of people. Zuckerberg’s further assertion that “a private company should [not] be censoring politicians or news” is also certainly persuasive- as any argument against censorship is likely to be.  Yet, this is not the whole story.

For one, banning ads is not the same as censoring speech. While users should be free to discuss their political views on digital platforms, free speech, as Facebook employees put it in a letter to Zuckerberg, is not the same as paid speech. Non paid-for posts on Facebook can gain traction and reach a wide variety of audiences, but this is earned through users’ interest, as they like and share posts. When advertisers pay for highly optimised, targeted ads, it is no longer the messages with most public interest that are at the forefront, but instead the information with the most money behind it.

Technological advances also increase the risks of online political advertising. The rise of deepfakes facilitates the ability to release fabricated videos of political leaders expressing views that are contrary to the ideologies they actually endorse. Zuckerberg’s belief in the public’s ability to determine the character of politicians is deeply flawed in an era when seemingly trustworthy news sources can pay to broadcast partially or entirely falsified content, and are granted the reach to proliferate these ‘facts’.

Additionally, the tracking abilities and access to personal data that social media advertising offers presents a problem: political actors can target specific demographics with whatever information they choose to, whether this is accurate or not. Advertisers can spread incorrect and divisive information, and they can do so in a way specifically designed to create an atmosphere of distrust and hatred. Is an electorate who votes on false information still a democracy?

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