Is the battle to define political advertising unwinnable?

Is the battle to define political advertising unwinnable?
Copyright REUTERS
By Helena Skinner
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As major tech companies begin to overhaul political advertising, Google's mislabelling of an undisclosed Tory attack ad highlights the pitfalls of regulating an unregulated world.


Since its creation, the internet and the digital world has gone largely unregulated. A forum for opinion, dissent, informing and misinforming.

Now major tech companies are starting to overhaul their rules, particularly with regard to political advertising. 

But how far should they go to regulate an unregulated world?

How do social media company strategies compare?

Facebook, Google, and Twitter vary hugely in their political ad policies. Facebook is arguably at the more lenient end of the spectrum, with politicians exempt from its third-party fact-checking programme, the platform allows political figures to run ads with false claims.

The social media giant’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has defended the company’s position, arguing that it does not want to stifle political speech. Though the company maintain the company was considering ways to refine the policy.

Google announced changes to their political adverts policy on Wednesday, with new measures in place to limit audience targeting for election ads to age, gender and the general location at a postal code level.

The change means political advertisers can no longer target adverts using data such as public voter records and general political affiliations such as right-leaning, left-leaning or independent.

A further perhaps more decipherable caveat was Google’s clause on banning ads “making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process”.

We reached out to Google for clarification on the definition of "demonstrably false", though we are still awaiting a response. Speaking to Euronews on the margin of interpretation, Heidi Tworek, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia said, “it raises the question of how Google will define this, and how they will enforce it”.

Indeed, on the day of the implementation of the new policy, Google breached its own rules by failing to spot an undisclosed Conservative Party attack ad.

Google told Euronews the advert had been incorrectly labelled, though would neither confirm nor deny whether it was an artifical intelligence or human error.

At the other end of the spectrum, Twitter Inc has banned political adverts. In November, it said this will include ads that reference a political candidate, party, election or legislation, among other limits.

The company also said it will not allow ads that advocate for a specific outcome on political or social causes.

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a statement last month.

Though which strategy is most realistic in its implementation?

Tworek believes all three platforms will, “struggle with volume, which will make enforceability really difficult regardless of what your policy is”.

“All these policies raise the bigger question of how political ads are different from all of the other ads that companies are running’’.

Google’s timely misstep on the fake "Labour Manifesto" highlights issues to what extent policies correspond with what in reality can be enforced.

For decades we’ve seen political stunts, but the tactics used across the UK political spectrum in the 2019 General Election campaign is unchartered territory.


Discussions on social media lay the blame with political parties, but mostly with social companies.

Tworek told Euronews, “Many of these policies may exist on paper, but how do we find out if they’re being enforced, and what are the sanctions if they are not being enforced, and what should these sanctions look like?”

“These are the questions we should be asking as we try to contemplate what elections and ads are going to look like in the 21st century’’

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