Regulating social ads in political campaigns

Facebook’s announcement of attempts to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election

In light of yesterday’s announcement by Facebook of a Russian attempt to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election using paid advertising, it’s a good time to write down some ideas about how to regulate UK elections in order to protect them from interference and cheating using social media ads. Many of these ideas are likely also applicable in other countries.

Regulation sits on a spectrum, ranging from none (or no further) regulation, to self-regulation, to formal regulation, to legal enforcement. Here we suggest options for companies, regulators and policymakers to improve oversight of targeted digital advertising in UK elections.

Option 1. The ‘no further regulation’ option.

The political parties (who want to reach voters) and the big platform companies (who want to get paid to help the parties to this), probably aren’t very unhappy with the status quo.

After all, there is an existing regulatory regime in place to control campaign spending, ads are ads (as in sometimes they’re effective, sometimes not) and, they would argue, there’s nothing that differs about a targeted digital ad when compared to a leaflet that drops onto the doormat.

This ignores the fact that the general direction of campaigns is changing in (at least) five ways:

  1. There is an increasing focus on data and targeting by the campaigns — a feature of the first past the post system and the closeness of UK elections over the last 7 years.
  2. There is an ongoing fall in traditional activism (at least on the centre-right) on behalf of political parties, meaning that paid digital media has become an important proxy for volunteers and on-the-ground organisation.
  3. The ability of the big digital platforms can combine multiple pieces of data on an individual so that they can be reached with specific messages at the most appropriate moments allied to the constant evolution of their products to do this ever more accurately.
  4. The rapid growth of the big social platforms, to the extent that they now get more attention and money from users and advertisers than TV or print media.
  5. It’s easier than ever to try to influence elections using social media platforms if you are a foreign power or other entity that isn’t directly running candidates.

The effect is quite profound — between 2015 and 2017, UK parties’ spending on digital ads at least doubled. By 2022, it’s easy to imagine an entirely different landscape for our elections, where more and more data is used by better resourced and better prepared parties, to try and win those few key votes in specific marginal seats. Alongside this, as the big internet companies continue to grow, and stake claims on other areas of the economy, new opportunities for targeted advertising and communication will surely follow.

The “no regulation” option therefore seems like a recipe for a weaker democracy, running the risk of big data, big money, foreign powers, narrow policy offers and little national debate, coming play a huge role — even potentially to dominate — our elections.

So what are the options for regulation?

Option 2. Self-regulation — the voluntary option.

Facebook should designate political advertising as a special category on their platform.

Facebook generally argues that all types of marketing are the same. They argue that it is better for their advertisers if there is one uniform policy for ads across the company. They argue that their clients demand secrecy for their advertising and the way they choose to target it. They argue that their own self-created agreements with their advertisers binds their hands.

They might well, but Facebook’s huge audience and targeting tools mean that their clients, including political campaigns, will advertise on the platform regardless of any small hurdles put in their way. This includes greater transparency.

It seems to us very unlikely that Facebook will suffer commercially if they choose to be more transparent. They may well earn significant goodwill from doing so, which might go some way towards repaying the loss of faith in the company after the role many believe it played (probably accidentally) in the Trump presidential victory in 2016. It may even contribute to the company’s stated mission of “bringing people closer together”. Politics, elections and democracy are qualitatively different to marketing, and Facebook should treat them differently.

To make political advertising more transparent, Facebook could take some or all of the following steps:

  • Require advertisers to state if they are promoting political content. This would make it easier for Facebook to display political ad information more transparently. Equally, ads that don’t self-report as political can more quickly be flagged, investigated and removed if they are found to be breaking this rule.
  • Automatically flag and require additional verification for advertisers outside the UK who are advertising political content during campaign periods. There are legitimate reasons to do this (e.g. you are buying ads on behalf of a client), but the potential for abuse is also very great. Additional verification would reduce the risk of outside interference in elections.
  • Show more information about political advertising. The “Why am I seeing this ad?” tab should be expanded to show geographical, demographic and interest information about the ad’s targeting, as well as the total spend committed to it.
  • Allow political advertisers to itemise their own invoices. For example, if an ad mentions a constituency or candidate, help advertisers flag it as local spending, attributable to a local campaign. This will reduce concern about how parties may bend the rules on local and national spending.
  • Archive political advertising in real time and allow voters to review it. Voters should be able to make their own choices about which ads are relevant to them, moving them to vote one way or another.

The measures we recommend would likely cost Facebook a trivial amount of developer and policy time to achieve. Facebook should move unilaterally — and quickly — on this issue, before elections in Catalonia, Italy, Japan, the 2018 US mid-terms and another (potential) UK General Election take place.

The fact that it has been historically difficult to work out how parties use leaflets, direct mail, telephone calls and door knocking is not an argument against transparency. That the Electoral Commission don’t ask campaigns for this information for these “older” types of media is no rationale for not doing so when it would be trivial to do it. That campaigns want to hide the way they campaign serves only the ‘game’ that is politics and, as fun for them as it is, it doesn’t serve the voting public.

There is no reason for elections in democracies to be fought in the dark if a torch is at hand. Facebook should light the way.

Option 3. The regulatory option.

The Electoral Commission should demand and publish greater detail about paid advertising, devise and apply new rules that clarify the way money is spent.

The Electoral Commission’s remit is too narrow. As a regulator of elections, its focus on registering interested parties and ensuring spending returns are accurately completed fails to answer questions of the conduct of elections (see above) which relatively new platforms such as Facebook pose.

Our first past the post system has always rewarded a narrow focus on swing groups of voters in key marginals. New techniques, specifically those used in digital advertising, allow this focus to be narrowed further.

This is bad for democracy, reducing the chance of a fair and equal offer for all, arrived at by open debate, negotiation and agreement.

The Electoral Commission should require the following things of political parties:

  • Their ads should include an imprint. If they are video ads, this should be at the start and end of the ad.
  • They should publish their ads, and all of their variants, within 48 hours of an advert going live on a website of the EC’s creation. Failure to do so should result in a fine at least equal to the cost of the advert placement.
  • That local targeting, not just local content, is counted as local spending.

These two measures will help ensure that politicians and parties can be held accountable for what they offer voters and that the confusion about what fits within local and national spending limits is cleared up.

The Electoral Commission should also require that Facebook (and the other big social platforms):

  • Provide them, in as close to real-time as possible, with a list of all advertisers targeting the UK during election campaign periods. This will allow the EC to cross check data with other sources (such as registrations and spending returns) to ensure that election rules have been followed.
  • Instantly suspend advertising campaigns from anyone appearing to break the law, pending further timely investigation.

The Information Commissioner’s Office should be given the power to oversee political campaigns’ use of data.

The ICO is investigating the use of data in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. It’ll likely be difficult to reconstruct a full picture of what did, or didn’t happen.

Rather than having a retroactive, investigative role in ensuring data is properly used, the ICO should periodically audit campaigns’ (and their contractors) use of data and advise them how to stay within the law. Breaches should be made public as quickly as possible and treated as breaking election, as well as data protection law.

The risk of being audited and being at the centre of a nasty political story will likely ensure campaigns pay due attention to the data they and their contractors create and use.

Parliament should pass a law requiring that organisations taking advertising money for political campaigns meet the standards and regulations set out above. It should also empower and properly resource the relevant regulators.

Facebook may argue that they are facing undue pressure, and that any voluntary steps they take will be to the advantage of their competitors.

By legislating to ensure the even application of new rules on political advertising, all advertising platforms can be treated fairly, with none losing out to any greater extent than any other.

The Electoral Commission will argue that it is unsuited and unprepared for an expansion in its role.

Accordingly therefore, Parliament should increase the resources available to the Electoral Commission. Projects such as WhoTargetsMe? were only able to monitor a small proportion of political ads placed during the election campaign. Nonetheless, it was a full time job. A properly mandated and resourced regulator, able to apply new regulations in an even-handed, predictable manner is an absolute requirement for free and fair elections in the UK.

In conclusion

The widespread adoption of targeted digital advertising in UK elections creates new problems which the large internet companies seem unwilling to address, while the regulators are poorly prepared for and equipped to deal with them.

The simple steps we’ve outlined above will go some way towards restoring public confidence that elections can’t be bought or easily manipulated using social media.

It’s not an exhaustive list, and we’re sure there are many excellent ideas out there which will not just protect our elections, but enhance them. We look forward to hearing what the social media platforms, parties, regulators, MPs and you think of our recommendations.

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