The Electoral Commission’s Director of Regulation, Louise Edwards, recently put out a call for new laws to regulate online political adverts. She argued that the adverts need to show clearly and directly who has paid for them.  Whilst knowing who has paid for online ads is important, it’s only part of the picture. The whole process of online political advertising needs to be more tightly regulated.
Political parties target ads online by using personal data to include or exclude potential voters. This drives down spending by targeting only a narrow slice of the population. In addition, automated messaging is becoming both cheaper and more sophisticated. Both of these practices will significantly reduce the amount of money needed by campaigns.
To regulate online political advertising effectively, we need to look beyond campaign spending. It’s equally crucial to have greater transparency over parties’ use of personal data. Consequently, we should be looking at organisations beyond the Electoral Commission, for example the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Transparency is critical. Both political actors that use online advertising, and the platforms that facilitate them, should be forced to come clean on their sources of personal data and how their targeting works. Public reporting can be supported, to a degree, by initiatives such as Facebook’s online ad library. The limited data that Facebook provides, however, allows shady individuals who pay for ads online to conduct ‘astroturf’ campaigns hidden behind shell companies.
Open Rights Group is concerned that narrowly targeted online political advertising is contributing to the polarisation of democratic discourse. When parties’ messaging is designed only to be seen by the people already most likely to vote for them, it becomes less about consensus and increasingly geared towards riling up supporters in order to drive them to the ballot box.
Britain’s political discourse has never been totally impartial. But rarely has it been more fractured. Properly regulating online political ads takes a first step to repairing it.