DCMS fake news report a leap forward for political ads but now the government must act

Alex Tait is founder of Entropy, a media, content and digital consultancy and co-founder of the Coalition of Reform in Political Advertising.

Alex has worked in senior marketing leadership roles at diverse companies including American Express, Royal Mail and Kellogg’s. Most recently he was media & marketing services director, UK & Ireland at Unilever.

DCMS fake news report a leap forward for political ads but now the government must act

The government’s long-awaited Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ report (under the chairmanship of Damian Collins MP) is finally out today, and we are very pleased to see that it has in its recommendations some key points of the plan we’ve been advocating since we launched The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May last year.

There was no focus on a plan for this area when we launched political advertising reform as an issue, but now it is firmly on the legislative radar. This is a real leap forward.

In a key recommendation the report rightly states that “electoral law is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques, and the move from physical leaflets and billboards to online, microtargeted political campaigning.” Since the inquiry was launched, a number of organisations have been emphasizing this very obvious point and we are glad it has been put forward with such clarity ahead of the government’s response.

From an ad industry perspective, the report follows on from the challenge Damian Collins made to the ad industry last September to come up with a code for political advertising. We responded articulating how the four points which we suggested could be the core of the code.

The four points in our plan were:

All paid-for political adverts should be available for the public to view, on a single searchable website.

The report takes this on board by stating “Political advertising items should be publicly accessible in a searchable repository— who is paying for the ads, which organisations are sponsoring the ad, who is being targeted by the ads—so that members of the public can understand the behaviour of individual advertisers. It should be run independently of the advertising industry and of political parties.”

We are delighted that this recommendation includes a point on which we’ve been very specific: that the ‘repository’ should be independent of both the political parties and the advertising industry. We believe that, for it to be credible and effective, this detail is essential.

Political advertisements should carry an imprint or watermarks to show the sponsor of the advert.

This is also covered by the report, which states: “there needs to be: absolute transparency of online political campaigning, including clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and the advertiser.”Again a significant point on which there is now consensus from many involved parties including the Electoral Commission

All factual claims used in political ads should be substantiated and pre-cleared

- an existing or new body should have the power to regulate political advertising content

In relation to these final two points, Damian had already proposed in September that “The Advertising Standards Authority should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made.”

The UK public agree with this wholeheartedly. When asked “Do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in adverts must be accurate?” YouGov research from late last year, which we commissioned with the fact-checking service Full Fact, showed that 84% of respondents agreed it should be. The survey population was weighted equally between those who voted remain and those who voted leave.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report states that “The public need to know more about their ability to report digital campaigning that they think is misleading and or unlawful. Ofcom, the ASA, the ICO and the Electoral Commission need to raise their profiles so that people know about their services and roles.” With current political digital campaigning almost unregulated, however, the public can’t meaningfully report misleading campaigns.

The report states, after a reference to foreign interference, “There is also the need for swift action during the short period of a campaign when false, misleading or illegal political advertising takes place. Delay in taking action increases the possibility of disinformation influencing an outcome.”

We’d recommend that the Inquiry makes it clear whether or not this is being proposed as a recommendation. With the first two points, we advocated there will need to be a regulator to oversee implementation, but it isn’t clear which regulator is being proposed: the ASA, the Electoral Commission or a new one?

It is, of course, critical that there should be a focus on foreign interference in our elections. However, with such a wide-ranging review of the topic of disinformation, and with trust in institutions, politicians and advertising at an all-time low, it is important that politicians and the ad companies they work with also step up to take responsibility for the content of their ads. As any marketing practitioner will tell you, the creative and message can be the most decisive factor in any campaign. There aren’t many objective factual claims in any campaign period, so this really shouldn’t be onerous for anyone. My co-founder, Benedict Pringle, wrote up the thought he presented at an event on the topic last week which gives more background on what we are proposing here.

One additional important point in the code Damian Collins proposed last year also related to targeting. This too is in the report. We fully agree with the recommendation which endorses the recommendation of the Information Commissioner’s Office that “a Code of Practice, which highlights the use of personal information in political campaigning and applying to all data controllers who process personal data for the purpose of political campaigning, should be underpinned by primary legislation.”

We also warmly welcome the recommendation that “the Government launches an independent investigation into past elections—including the UK election of 2017, the UK Referendum of 2016, and the Scottish Referendum of 2014—to explore what actually happened with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learned for future elections and referenda.”

This certainly would illustrate the need for many of the recommendations we have been proposing and which are now in the report.

The scope of the DCMS inquiry as it has developed, and the extent to which it has been covered in the press, have done a fantastic job of making clear the urgency of the need for political ad reform. We should remember, however, that these are only recommendations to the government. We all need to keep the issue, these recommendations and insights as well as the clarifications we’ve asked for above high on the political agenda over the coming months. With whatever political turmoil ensues, the fact that the need for intervention is clearly understood has been a really significant move forward. We are pleased to have played out part.

However, we now to make sure the same urgency in response is forthcoming from the government. We argue that as citizens of this country we are all now responsible for now working together to make sure this happens.

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