When Twitter announced last week that it was throwing down a global ban on all political advertising, it was a genuine bombshell. Few, if anyone, in either policy or journalism had seen it coming. It even surprised people who worked at Twitter.
The timing was perfect. Britain was bracing for a general election, and newsrooms and studios across the country were beginning to tune their antennae toward the campaign and how it was playing out online. Here was their first story: it wasn’t just academics or journalists saying that targeted advertising might be a gateway for all kinds of illicit or outright dangerous influence on democracy – it was a Californian tech giant. Google and Facebook, who have resisted similar moves, have looked more and more exposed since.
And so targeted political advertising became the first big topic of the election. I was fully behind Twitter’s decision to ban it. It was one of the first times that a tech giant has shown sincere concern for the societal harm their services might be causing. My think tank, Demos, signed an open letter alongside Mozilla and others, calling on Google and Facebook to do the same. Even a number of politicians – the very people fighting in this election – have said digital campaigning rules are not fit for purpose. Until we clear up how politics should be fought online, we need to step back, and Twitter has done so.
Much like the murky data science used by Cambridge Analytica and Russian influence operations online, targeted advertising is only the latest in a series of digital issues to lurch from relative obscurity straight into the international spotlight. And, just like those other problems, it creates an especially explosive cocktail: shadowy tech connected with the fever-pitch energy of an election. Obscurity has one set of pitfalls, and enormous publicity another.
The battle for influence online is largely fought over attention. Cutting through the online noise to get something in front of you is half of the battle campaigners face and – of course – that’s what advertising is for. Now, suddenly – projected on studio screens, in countless write-ups and think pieces – ads intended to be seen only by a tiny few are instead broadcast to millions. It’s a weird reverse effect: the more granular the ad, the more likely it is to suddenly find an enormous audience as part of a discussion about whether people seeing it is bad for democracy.
This certainly won’t be lost on the campaigns themselves. Advertisers have long courted publicity as one of the easiest and most effective ways of building buzz around their message. In that industry’s jargon, this is known as “earned media” – essentially free publicity. Vegan sausage roll anyone? Trolling Piers Morgan and others worked brilliantly for Greggs.
When Nike backed Colin Kaepernick, it led both to a boycott and a huge spike in sales. There’s even been suggestions that deliberately racist ads have been put out in order to fight through the noise.
“Shockvertising” is now so industry standard, there are plenty of blog posts explaining how to do it. Now that hyper-targeted ads are the most controversial things around, any professional campaigner will know that planting them might result in their message being picked up and relayed by tens of reporters hell-bent on exposing underhanded techniques.
There is a deeper danger, too, beyond simply wantonly amplifying targeted ads themselves. What makes targeted ads hazardous in the first place is that the ability to craft tens of thousands of different messages to tens of thousands of different communities, without anyone else seeing it, might exacerbate the sharp polarisation we’ve been witnessing in democracies all over the world. But transforming political advertising into a party political struggle will do exactly the same. It’s all too easy to see it as just another technique that your opponents abuse but your own side doesn’t. Just another way for them – not us! – to break the rules.
Rules, of course, that we don’t really have in the first place and this is perhaps the greatest danger of all. One of the main reasons Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey gave for the ban was that targeted ads had impacts that “today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle”. Rules especially matter when it comes to elections, because those rules are the only things keeping people believing that, whatever the result, the election was democratic and fairly conducted.
Digital campaigning outside of any clear rules is one of the ways that a shared sense of fairness can be lost. But reporting on targeted advertising without an objective and sensible sense of its scale and likely impact is another. In a close-run election, targeting advertising might genuinely be decisive. But so might leaflets, TV debates, the ground game, some yet-to-be-disclosed scandal or – most likely – a concoction of all of these things. It is almost impossible to pluck any part of a campaign out from the broader melee and hold it up as the reason why tens of millions of complicated, diverse human beings voted the way they did.
I wish Facebook and Google had followed Twitter and banned political advertising. I wish we had clear laws governing digital campaigns. But I hope that the way we cover and think about the digital campaign doesn’t give airtime to bad messages, usher in even more polarisation, or demolish our sense that the election is a fair one. These are the very dangers, indeed, that triggered this whole debate.
Carl Miller is the research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM)
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