About the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)
Why UK agencies matter
The UK Digital Economy
The IPA submission:
Specific Questions and Answers
4. Would greater transparency in the online spending and campaigning of political groups improve the electoral process in the UK by ensuring accountability, and if so what should this transparency look like?
Yes. Transparency in online campaigning is especially important because this opaque and unaccountable form of political communication is vulnerable to abuse. There is no oversight or regulation of political advertising messaging.
Individual online platforms have made some progress in providing platform-specific political advertising archives. However, it is insufficient, unwieldy and prone to obsolescence to rely on these disconnected unilateral archives.
The IPA calls for each online platform to be responsible for populating an independent platform-neutral register by providing all their political ad campaign data and metadata as feeds. Furthermore, echoing Full Fact, the UK’s Independent fact checking Charity, the IPA calls for the register to be in real time, machine-readable, and with full details of content, targeting and spend.
To fund this registering, the IPA moots the idea of online platforms charging a fixed fee for each individual political ad creative used, irrespective of the scale of use. This would correlate registry funding to the workload of political messaging it would have to handle.
We support the Electoral Commission’s call for digital political advertising imprints to clearly show who paid for the adverts.
5. What effect does online targeted advertising have on the political process, and what effects could it have in the future? Should there be additional regulation of political advertising?
Politics relies on the public sphere - on open, collective debate.
We believe micro-targeted political ads circumvent this. Very small numbers of voters can be targeted with specific messages that exist online only briefly. In the absence of regulation, we believe this opaque and unaccountable form of political communication is vulnerable to abuse.
We support additional regulation of political advertising but remain unconvinced this will take place with sufficient urgency, if at all.
In the interim we call for a ban on micro-targeted political advertising online. As per our submission to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI)’s Review of Online Targeting:
In his paper Manipulating Citizens: How Political Campaigns’ Use of Behavioral Social Science Harms Democracy, Professor William Gorton warns that microtargeting ‘turns citizens into objects of manipulation and undermines the public sphere by thwarting public deliberation, aggravating political polarisation, and facilitating the spread of misinformation’.
In Online Political Microtargeting: Promises and Threats for Democracy, the authors note:
“Politicians could use microtargeting to manipulate voters. For instance, a party could target particular voters with tailored information that maximises, or minimises, voter engagement. A party could use social media to expose xenophobic voters to information about the high crime rates amongst immigrants. The targeted information does not even need to be true to maximise its impact.
Political parties could also use microtargeting to suppress voter turnout for their opponents. For example, in 2016, the Donald Trump campaign reportedly targeted African-American voters with advertisements reminding voters of Hillary Clinton’s earlier remarks of calling African-American males ‘super predators’ to suppress African-American votes.
A political party could also misleadingly present itself as a one-issue party to each individual. A party may highlight a different issue for each voter, so each voter sees a different one-issue party. In this way, microtargeting could lead to a biased perception regarding the priorities of that party. Moreover, online political microtargeting could lead to a lack of transparency about the party’s promises. Voters may not even know a party’s views on many topics.”
We have not set a fixed threshold under which targeting would be defined as microtargeting. We volunteer to help create a mechanism for calculating thresholds (for example minimum percentage of electorate in a geographical region).
8. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?
Again referencing our submission to the CDEI’s Review of Online Targeting, this review defines autonomy as “our ability to make choices freely and based on information that is as full and complete as reasonably possible”. The challenge to this, especially with regard to political discourse, is The Law of Group Polarisation. Exert: “In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.”
As Cass R. Sunstein (Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard) the author of this paper subsequently noted in 2007 “… as a result of the Internet, we live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches -- much of it voluntary, much of it produced by those who think they know, and often do know, what we're likely to like. This raises some obvious questions. If people are sorted into enclaves and niches, what will happen to their views? What are the eventual effects on democracy?”
We would argue online enclaves and niches relating to products, services and cultural groups (imagine classic car owners, airline executive club members, fans of a particular football club or pop band) pose little threat to individuals, organisations or to society. Within the bounds of the law, online targeting in these spaces is largely innocuous.
The contrast with regard to political online targeting and the potential for its abuse could not be starker,