Electoral Commission proposals to reform political advertising don’t go far enough

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency in relation to political campaigning. Whilst they are to be welcomed, the recent self-regulatory action of tech platforms is far more significant and there’s still plenty more to do.

Electoral law sets out rules that apply to candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners who are aiming to influence the outcome of elections in the UK.

These rules aim to limit spending, provide transparency for voters about the sources of funding and provide clarity on what campaigning activity the money pays for.

The Electoral Commission – amongst other things – provides guidance on the rules, helps enforce adherence to the rules and publishes reports relating to the rules.

A problem facing the enforcement of these rules since social media became a dominant force in society is the fact that the ability to know which political ads are being run – and by whom – has been severely curtailed.

During recent elections and referenda political advertisers could run ads targeted at specific groups and be fairly confident of evading scrutiny of their messaging (provided that no pesky journalists were inadvertently served the ad) or how much was spent saying it. This social media advertising product is known as a ‘dark ad’.

I could have run £275,000 worth of political advertising on social media during the last general election – using money that was given to me by a shady Russian oligarch – and there’s a good chance that the Electoral Commission would be none the wiser.

People who saw my ads would have no idea that it was me who ran it, or who gave me the money to pay for it, and if they didn’t think the content was true, there was no regulatory body that they could report it to.

It’s no surprise then that shady practices have begun to develop.

Some groups, such as Vote Leave and Leave.EU, have been accused of accepting in-kind donations from people and companies outside the UK. This is illegal as political parties and campaigners in the UK are only allowed to accept domestic donations.

And some foreign states have been accused of meddling in elections by running ad campaigns; it is now proven for example that Russian-sponsored campaigns were seen by tens of millions of voters in the USA during their 2016 general election.

Did this happen during recent elections and referenda in the UK? Neither the Electoral Commission nor Parliament have any real way of knowing (but it would be very unusual, given events in France, Germany and the USA if it hadn’t).

If it did, it’s a pretty sizeable breach of our democracy and a reason to further regulate political advertising.

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency on sources of income and on how much money was spent and on which activities.

One suggestion is to require campaigners to include an ‘imprint’ – some wording as to who is responsible for the ads – on digital communications in the same way as is required of print media.

They also want a change in the way campaigners submit their expenditure so that there’s more clarity on where money is being spent. Currently there’s one umbrella category for all advertising; the Electoral Commission would like to know in future what was spent on social media, search, billboards etc… without having to sift through a load of receipts.

And the Electoral Commission would like improved punitive powers; the current limit on fines that can be issued is £20,000, which is a drop in the ocean for mainstream political parties who typically spend many millions of pounds on campaigning.

Whilst these are all good and reasonable suggestions that should certainly be adopted, there is nothing which would enable them to monitor bad actors that use the anonymity of the internet to run campaigns.

Fortunately for the Electoral Commission, the tech platforms have stepped in and self-regulated.

Facebook have stated that they are ending ‘dark ads’; going forwards people will be able to see all the ads a Page is running on Facebook, whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad.  They are also promising to create an archive of election related ads so that it’s easier for journalists and campaigners to hold sponsors of ads to account. Twitter have also promised similar measures.

This change will make a much bigger difference than any of the aforementioned reforms, as it will help provide transparency around the universe of messaging and targeting being used by campaigners.

Getting the platforms to make the changes wasn’t easy. It took US Senators to propose a bill called the “Honest Ads Act” and for Facebook, Twitter and Google’s senior executives to be hauled in front of a Congressional hearing.

We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the fact that the US government have taken the issue seriously; it’s a big step forwards for holding those who seek to influence elections using social networks to account.

The final and hugely important step to improving trust in political campaigns will be to create a system for pre-clearance of factual claims being made by political parties.

Until people have the confidence that facts and figures used to justify promises and attacks are independently fact-checked, there will be skepticism from the public about the truthfulness of campaigns and false information will continue to be able to affect the narrative of elections.

The Electoral Commission in their report reiterated the fact that they “do not regulate the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including mis-information” and nor are they “seeking an extension to our remit to include these issues”.

The Electoral Commission’s fear is that if they are required to act as a fact-checker or “truth commission” for political advertising, they risk damaging their reputation for regulating political finance.

It’s an understandable position, but it’s a shame that they haven’t seen fit to include the creation of a body that could do so as part of their recommendations. It’s a glaring omission.

Social media, segmentation and political advertising

This week there have been three brilliant articles which give perspectives on political segmentation and running effective election campaigns using social media platforms.

Cambridge Analytica CEO talks to TechCrunch

Alexander Nix - politics elections social media segmentation targeting cambridge analytica

Alexander Nix, CEO of infamous advertising / technology firm Cambridge Analytics, gave a 50 minute interview to TechCrunch.  The full transcript is available as well as a short summary.

It’s a wide ranging discussion but the reader is left with many more clues as to the firm’s methodology and approach to communications.

Professor Mark Ritson on Facebook’s political segmentation

Facebook US 2016 political segmentation

Marketing professor Mark Ritson gives a brilliant ‘how to’ in political segmentation using Facebook’s US Presidential ‘16 work as a case study.  This guy really knows his onions. The first step to any political campaign is segmenting the electorate so if your business is winning elections this guide is worth bookmarking.

The Economist on how to game the attention economy

The Economist social media threat to democracy attention economy

The Economist have done a brilliant briefing on social media and politics.  It looks at the different ways in which social media is impacting politics but, more usefully for political practitioners, it gives a very savvy perspective on the sort of content that can thrive in the ‘attention economy’.

Would Trump win again one year on?

Donald Trump was elected as President of the USA on 8th November 2016 and has had a controversial first year in office.  If he were to run again one year on, would he win? An election taking place in Virginia 364 days after Trump’s victory will give us a good idea.

It’s a year since Donald Trump shocked the world and won the US Presidency. Highlights of his term so far include trying to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA, defending white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and travelling to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea.

Given Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and the consistent chorus of public outrage surrounding the current Presidency, it’s easy to assume that if another contest took place on the anniversary of the 2016 election, the Democratic candidate would end up in the White House.

That assumption is being put to the test in an election taking place on Tuesday 7th November to decide the next Governor of Virginia.

A bit of background on Virginia: it is historically a swing state; George W. Bush and Obama both won it twice; Hillary Clinton won the state by about five percentage points in 2016; and there is no incumbent as governors in Virginia can’t hold office for consecutive terms.

The Republican Party candidate, Ed Gillespie, has totally aligned himself with Trump’s agenda and the Democrat candidate, Ralph Northam, is from the Clinton (as opposed to Sanders) wing of his party.

Like Trump in ‘16, Gillespie is campaigning on the issue of tax cuts, job creation and reducing illegal immigration.  He has argued for the conservation of Confederate-era statues and complained about “sanctuary cities” (a city that limits its cooperation with the national government effort to enforce immigration law).  And he has relentlessly attacked his Democratic opponent.

Gillespie is hoping that by sticking closely to Trump’s Presidential agenda he will encourage a high turnout amongst conservative voters.

Northam is campaigning on abortion rights, the environment and is attacking his opponent as being a reactionary running a nasty, racist dog-whistle campaign.

The Democrat has more money to spend, has run more TV ads than his opponent and will be hoping to turnout the democratic base and add enough undecided women and ethnic minorities to beat his Republican opponent.

Again, this feels very familiar.

The race is seemingly too close to call with different polls showing widely different results; some have Northam with a double-digit lead and others have Gillespie just edging it.

Strategists in Washington D.C and beyond are watching the race closely. The result will give a good indication as to the mood of the electorate and will provide useful intel as to how to play mid-term elections in 2018.

And looking further ahead, if another Clinton-style candidate fails to succeed, it could influence perspectives on what type of nominee stands a chance of beating Trump in 2020.

Oxfam: tax avoidance hurts the world’s poor

Oxfam have released a new ad which dramatises the argument that tax avoidance deprives developing countries of funds for vital services.

The film is spectacular.

Shocking audiences of charity and NGO ads into action is incredibly hard; Oxfam have bravely tried an approach which doesn’t involve depicting real life poverty and deprivation and I strongly suspect their results will be better because of it.

The ghoulish movements and masks of the ‘thieves’ are genuinely unsettling.

The stylish framing of the shots, high production values and pacing of the edit make it feel akin to the opening sequence of a Hollywood film.

Whilst I felt the section where the ‘thieves’ were inflicting harm went on too long, there were a couple (the oxygen mask and the baby) where I felt genuine anguish.

Releasing the film on halloween is also clever – the scary nature of the story makes the content feel timely and relevant.

Add to this the fact that the ad is hugely provocative and it means that it’s very likely people will share it on social media (nothing spreads quite like outrage).

It’s such a shame – but ultimately understandable – that the first few seconds of the ad are given to an age restriction message; it must be very frustrating for the makers that a significant portion of people won’t be given the opportunity to be hooked into the story on their newsfeed as they’ll scroll straight past what looks like a black screen.

Regardless: top marks to Oxfam GB – definitely the best hijack of halloween this year.

We all bleed

Today is the United Nations ‘International Day of the Girl’. A day which aims to draw the world’s attention to inequality that girls face due to their gender.

Plan International UK, a charity, marked the day by launching a new product: ‘Plaster Pads’.

The product is designed to help bring an end to the shame that many girls experience around their periods.

Plan International UK’s survey of 1,000 girls aged 14-21 found that almost half are embarrassed by periods.

By creating plasters – carrying messaging which downplays the significance of bleeding – that look like a sanitary product, the charity are hoping to help make society understand that blood, any blood, is just blood.

By drawing similarities between period blood and other forms of blood, the product cleverly communicates that the menstrual cycle is nothing to be embarrassed about.

The charity could have made adverts about the fact that periods are nothing to be ashamed of, but by creating a useful product – that people will choose to wear on an ongoing basis – they have made something which will communicate the same message in a less ephemeral, more personal, way.

The campaign was created by Scott Kelly and Ben Polkinghorne (more of their work here) at ad agency AMV BBDO.

Who’s inside the Russian Doll?

New research shows that the US Presidential campaign run by a Russian state-sponsored troll farm was highly professional; this is significant as it makes it more likely that their effort to influence the result in Trump’s favour was effective. How did this troll farm, based in a country with little experience of elections, acquire such political expertise?

Last week Facebook provided evidence to the US Congress which confirmed that around 3,000 ads, bought by a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, reached voters during the US Presidential election.

Facebook estimate that 10 million people in the USA saw “at least one” advert placed through an account run by the troll farm.

That is a very large number of people when you consider how few voters decided the outcome.

There were only 2.8 million votes separating Trump and Clinton in the popular vote: in the closest 10 states the combined difference between them was only 585,319.

Difference between votes gained by Trump and Clinton

If the ads seemed as if they were sponsored by cranks (so were likely to be disregarded) and were run against a random selection of 10 million voters, one might assume they made no difference.

But research carried out by Jonathan Albright – a faculty associate at Harvard’s  Center for Internet & Society and a research director on Digital Journalism at Columbia University – shows the Russian activity was anything but amateur.

To summarise their approach:

1. Set up a series of front groups (470 uncovered so far) designed to appeal to different segments of the population: names of the Facebook Pages include Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders, and LGBT United.

2. Write organic posts on divisive issues in ways that are likely to polarise readers (nothing spreads as fast on social media as outrage).

3. Use the data gained from the types of pages and posts that people respond to as the basis for paid-for advertising.

4. Run ads that are tailored to these specific audiences which are designed (according to Albright who has analysed all of them) “to get people not to vote”.

Negative campaigning work in lots of ways, but research shows that one of the most effective aspects of ‘attack ads’ is their ability to reduce turnout.

Given the sophistication of the Russian troll farm’s approach to targeting, the tight focus of the creative, and the hugely significant number of people reached by paid advertising, it’s hard to argue their campaign had no impact. And that’s without accounting for the organic posts which reached tens of millions.

Some suggest Clinton lost because of low Democratic turnout at the polls. States like Wisconsin are cited where in 2016 Trump won with the same number of votes as gained by Romney in 2012 (when Obama won the state).

Wisconsin

Is it possible that hundreds of thousands of soft Clinton supporters in Wisconsin were the target of the Russian troll farm’s advertising campaign? Absolutely. We will only know if Facebook or Congress make public the targeting used in the troll farm’s ad buys.

Would serving a large volume of advertising – specifically designed to convince people with a weak propensity to vote, but with a preference for Clinton – persuade 27,258 Wisconsin citizens to stay at home? It’s certainly conceivable.

The sentence “A Russian state-sponsored information war led to the unlawful election of a US President” reads like one from a conspiracy theorist.

On the other hand, the statement “tens of thousands of people decided to stay at home, rather than head to the polls, after being bombarded by data-enriched ads deliberately designed to depress turnout” doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

The big answered question remains: was there was any collusion between the troll farm and the Trump campaign and, if not, who’s the political brain inside the Russian Doll?

There’s a few more layers still to go.

 

Who should regulate political advertising?

This week I was asked by Campaign, a leading marketing trade publisher, as to whether the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) should regulate political advertising.

As regular readers will know, much to my chagrin, political advertising remains completely unregulated in the UK. Political campaigns can say or claim anything they want without fear of legal or financial reprimand.

Below is my 100 word response and you can read the thoughts of other members of the advertising industry here:

Political advertising needs regulating.

More parties and groups, are making more ads, more quickly.

But widespread visibility of those ads has decreased, along with other safeguards against the spread of disinformation.

Regulation would inevitably generate controversy.

Requiring the ASA to repeatedly weather such storms risks compromising their good reputation for regulating commercial advertising.

Both the Election Committee of Ofcom and the Electoral Commission are better placed.

A system for pre-clearance of factual claims and transparency around the universe of messaging being used by parties are two measures that would help restore trust in political campaigns.