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IPA: Facebook micro-targeted political ads ‘a clear and present threat’ to elections


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

January 10, 2020 | 5 min read

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has taken a strong stance against Facebook’s decision to continue allowing unchecked microtargeted political ads on its network, a tool the trade body says has been “demonstrably abused in the recent past".


IPA brands Facebook micro-targerted political ads as ‘a clear and present threat’

Nigel Gwilliam, director of media affairs at the IPA issued the condemnation after Facebook announced it would not reduce the targeting on, or fact-check, political ads it enables during elections.

There's growing demand for it to do so and it is becoming ever more isolated by resisting. In November, Google stepped away from micro-targeted political ads, understanding the difficulties that can arise from running them. Twitter also stopped running them and TikTok never has. Snap will continue to, but they will be fact-checked with the app citing its importance in inspiring greater turnout of young people during elections.

Facebook’s role in democracy is coming under increasing scrutiny. Its acceptance of political ads while many other networks turn them away comes after its well-documented struggles to police misinformation and the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal which saw its data weaponised to influence voters.

Gwilliam said: “Advertising technology designed for the promotion of products and services has been weaponised for political messaging. In a democracy, political ideas need to be aired and debated in the public square. Microtargeting has the potential to subvert this, especially when combined with the absence of fact-checking or any other message regulation.”

He pointed a loophole in current UK advertising regulation, chiefly that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) does not cover political advertising.

Gwilliam added: “This is a clear and present threat to politics in democracies. While we support regulation of political messaging, we do not believe this will be introduced in the foreseeable future.”

As a result, the IPA has made two calls:

"We endorse transparency in the world of political advertising online as the next best thing to regulation. For this reason, we call for a publicly accessible, platform-neutral, machine-readable register of all political ads and ad data online.

"A ban on microtargeted political advertising online. If you don’t limit the granularity of targeting, especially in a world of growing automation/AI, you risk a sheer volume of different messages overwhelming any transparency measure like the proposed register."

Trying to get ahead of this as the 2020 US election approaches, Facebook is running branded content in trusted media outlining its efforts to make its political advertising strong, trustworthy and transparent.

Axios sponsored content claimed that ‘Facebook creates industry-leading transparency for political ads’. Of course, the tool crashed days before the most recent UK general election.

Somewhat less well-received was a piece that ran in Teen Vogue explaining 'How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election'. Questions emerged whether it was undisclosed advertorial or not. Teen Vogue blamed a labelling error before later deleting the piece.

On Thursday 9 January, Facebook did announce new transparency features and allowed users to control how many political ads they see. The ads will still be checked by third-party media companies and non-profits, all the more difficult when posts are microtargeted, often invisible to those who would scrutinise them, especially when transparency tools break.

Facebook's defence is that “people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public”. The platform could be a powerful tool for political discourse if it hosted better quality, and rigorous content, and afforded better tools to tackle misinformation. It pulls significant revenue from political ads and appears reluctant to let go of that income stream. CNN branded it 'a very dangerous decision for 2020'.

There is evidence of state-backed misinformation on the platform. Some evidence we have of these dangers, Facebook admitted Russian troll farm content reached as much as 126 million people during the 2016 election. Specially created Groups were also employed to drive dissent and misinformation.

As the public's awareness of microtargeted ads rises, seemingly so does the public's distaste. Steve Kuncewicz, partner at BLM Law firm and specialist in social media law, previously told The Drum: "Microtargeted ads are becoming a riskier proposition in general, and the debate around political advertising looks to be giving some of the major platforms an opportunity to nail their colours to a particular mast."

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