In recent years, political parties have devoted more and more resources to paid advertising on social media. It’s been seen as a more relevant, cost-effective way of engaging with younger voters. Yet William Hague’s article in the Telegraph on Tuesday raises the prospect of a ban on Facebook advertising for political purposes.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising coming from a former leader of the Conservative Party. After all, this is a realm dominated by Labour and where a little money goes a long way – far further than through more traditional media (leaflets, direct mail, paid newspaper advertising). It feels more like a call to stop the progress rather than harness it.
Hague’s primary argument is that, given the preponderance of fake news and serious allegations of Russian interference in US elections (not to mention foiled attempts in the French elections last year), there should be far stricter rules, going so far as to call for a ban on paid political advertising on social media. He argues there is very little accountability and that ads could appear and disappear without a trace, overly influencing voters by appearing to be from non-political sources.
The article suggests that such a ban would mirror the ban on TV advertising for political parties in the UK, but this is somewhat selective as an argument. After all, he does not argue against paid advertising in the print media. The argument over ‘fake news’ has actually been raging for years, for example with certain political leaflets masquerading as local free newspapers, and no action has been taken to curb this beyond marginally tighter regulation.
Hague also doesn’t propose that political party broadcast slots should be provided on social media platforms – as is currently the case on TV. Instead he argues it should simply be organic sharing amongst friends (while in the same breath talking of the fact that social media polarises and we tend to only see things we naturally would agree with…) Finally – the laws on TV advertising were first devised at a time when most people paid for TV as a public service through the license fee: a very different environment to social media platforms.
The truth is we already have access to algorithms which can block posts relating to terrorist propaganda, for example. It is not beyond the wit of man to develop similar algorithms to capture any paid political adverts to prevent these being hidden away post-election, or block them if they don’t meet the regulations. There are ways of ensuring accountability which harnesses the technology and doesn’t involve an outright ban.
The row over fake news and social media advertising will continue raging for years to come. Banning political adverts isn’t the way forward and it won’t help the debate. We need a properly thought out debate over this, not reactionary proposals aimed at preventing progress.
Our public affairs team regularly comments on events that intersect the political sphere. To find out more about our work, email Sarah Jones