Facebook has released £2.7 million worth of adverts that pro-Brexit campaigns published on the social network ahead of the EU referendum in 2016.
The US tech giant relinquished the trove on Thursday to British MPs investigating fake news, meaning everyone can now view ads that previously only specific Facebook users could see using the online platform’s ad targeting tools.
The graphics were created by Canadian data firm AggregateIQ, which has ties to Cambridge Analytica, and Leave campaigners have credited them with being instrumental in their success.
Critics say the adverts were misleading, adding that some contained outright lies.
However, since political advertising in the UK is not regulated, organisations are free to print made-up claims with near impunity. That is, unless a false statement of fact is made about a candidate’s personal character or conduct. The Electoral Commission therefore advises such allegations to be reported to the police.
But what could happen if rules for commercial advertising DID apply to political adverts?
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is tasked with regulating commercial advertising in the UK, yet claims in marketing communications "whose principal function is to influence voters in a local, regional, national or international election or referendum" are exempt from its remit.
To find out what happens when advertisers fall foul of their Code, Euronews spoke to the ASA's Matt Wilson.
The pro-Brexit ads released by Facebook touched on topics including Immigration, unemployment, the NHS and animal rights - issues likely to trigger specific groups of people based on their age, background, political leanings and on other characteristics made available to data firms on their social media profiles.
Some of the ads contained claims which were misleading at the time, including the false statement that Turkey was joining the EU. Untruthful statements made in commercial adverts would prompt action from the ASA.
“If you make claims, you have to hold evidence to back up those claims,” says Wilson. “So ads should be truthful: they shouldn’t mislead, they shouldn’t harm and they shouldn’t offend … and where we find that the rules have been broken, then we’ll take action to have the ad removed and prohibit it from appearing again.”
Other pro-Brexit ads appeared to lack a source or any branding, making it unclear who was behind it and ultimately, whether or not it was even an advert. Commercial adverts, however, cannot be as ambiguous.
“One of the key rules in the advertising code is ads must be identifiable,” says Wilson. “So if an ad is an ad, then we as consumers should know that what we’re engaging with is actually an advertising message.
“What's more, consumers shouldn’t have to play detective in working out who’s advertising what … if there was a sense that an ad was misleading in its presentation, there’s an ambiguity which lead to consumers being mislead about what was behind it and what the motivation of the advertiser was, then we would have to establish whether or not there was a problem.”
'Ads in the UK should be legal, decent, honest and truthful'
When a commercial advertiser breaks the rules, ASA are not limited to issuing bans. They can also enlist the aid of search engines and lay the groundwork for legal action.
“Ads in the UK should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Those same rules extend online,” says Wilson. “Following an investigation, if an ad breaks the rules it has to be withdrawn. Beyond that … we can work with search engines such as Google to have advertisers’ paid search ads taken down, so that obviously hits them financially, and we can place our own ads in and around their search results highlighting the problem, so any consumers who are searching for information about that advertiser, they would see an ASA ad highlighting the issues behind their misleading claims.
“Ultimately, if an advertiser isn’t willing to play ball and sanctions aren’t proving effective, then we can and will consider referral to our legal backstop power and that’s the national Trading Standards [body]. They can take statutory action against advertisers who won’t work with us and that can include prosecutions and fines.”
So why isn't political advertising covered?
As for why a statutory body like ASA does not oversee political advertising, the answer is that there are concerns that such regulations could interfere with democracy.
“One of main reasons is the short, fixed time frames over which elections are run. That runs the real risk of the ASA acting on complaints once an election has taken place and the matter has been resolved, and that would risk bringing the system into disrepute.
“So the only option open to consumers who have concerns about claims in political ads is that they should contact the political parties directly and exercise their democratic right to object and to challenge the claims that they see being made.”