How to stop Facebook undermining democracy

[First published on CapX.co]

Digital advertising will form a huge part of the parties’ campaigns in the upcoming general elections. When party political broadcasts air or billboard adverts are unveiled, the national media will offer a commentary on their meaning and truthfulness – yet we almost never see a similar debate of parties’ digital ads.

But people are beginning to wake up to the fact that this lack of scrutiny is an affront to democracy, with consequences that no one can easily predict.

This type of advertising is relatively new; social media has been mainstream for nearly a decade, but the infrastructure for targeting political adverts to a significant proportion of voters has only recently achieved maturity. Targeted online ads are now the most important battlefield in political advertising – and Facebook is the biggest player.

Given the importance of advertising on social media, is there a case for disclosure of who is buying ads and how voters are being targeted? If Facebook disclosed information about political advertising would it change the way we understood the campaigns?

The answer is that we simply don’t know. Facebook data is extremely inaccessible. Academic researchers who want to analyse Facebook data are made to sign agreements regarding how they will publish their research. In many cases they have to rely on third-party sources whose accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Journalists may ask people about the adverts they had seen on social media. But the evidence suggests that most of us have very poor recall of what adverts we’ve seen online, and often cannot even distinguish adverts from other content. Of course, this does not mean the adverts are not influential – the fact that they are camouflaged only makes them more persuasive.

What we do know is that political strategists think Facebook advertising has a massive impact. The Vote Leave campaign said they spent 98 per cent of their budget on a Facebook blitz just before the referendum.

A widely-circulated conference talk by the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, a company that specialises in targeted advertising, shows an apparently spooky ability to shift public opinion by focusing adverts with surgical precision. Sceptics have pointed out that this a sales pitch to be taken with a pinch of salt. Who is right? We don’t know – there is no data.

If Facebook disclosed political advertising data it would help answer several important questions. Are parties obeying electoral law on how much they spend on advertising? Are actors from outside the UK buying advertising? What about fake news farms, pumping out partisan scare stories with zero connection to reality to maximise advertising revenue?

When a politician deploys a battle bus with policy promises emblazoned in huge letters, they can either keep the promise or pay a political price. What price do you pay if you break personalised, and highly persuasive, policy commitments on social media? Possibly none, if you can prevent journalists seeing what you are up to.

The importance of these questions to the health of democracy is why we set up Whotargets.me, a project which aims to help people understand who is targeting them on Facebook, and also to crowdsource data to shed some light on the problem.

Using an extension for the Chrome web browser, we create a personalised list of the political parties and other political organisations who have targeted you on Facebook. We also – with appropriate privacy considerations – collect the data and will use it to help build a clearer picture of the digital campaign during this general election.

Given this weekend’s tactical use of hacking in the French election, the importance of the digital dimension in campaigns is becoming ever more obvious.

Fake news, foreign intervention and cyber attacks are all complicated issues. Disclosure of political advertising on established social media platforms is comparatively straightforward, and would simply be bringing digital campaigning into line with the time-honoured methods of offline campaigning.

Facebook have very little to lose from disclosing such data – any defensible activity on the part of political advertisers would continue. If advertisers are doing something they don’t want made public, perhaps they shouldn’t be doing it?

Democracy is more than putting a mark on a piece of paper in polling booth. If it is to offer genuine enfranchisement then citizens must be able to access relevant information, including what promises parties are making to other voters and who is responsible for the adverts they see.