The Irish Times view of online political advertising: Democracy under attack

Online advertising has become all-pervasive over the past decade but until last year the giant tech companies were not held accountable for implementing the basic standards of accountability that applies to advertising in the traditional media. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Online advertising has become all-pervasive over the past decade but until last year the giant tech companies were not held accountable for implementing the basic standards of accountability that applies to advertising in the traditional media. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

 

A detailed analysis of online political advertising in Ireland during the recent European elections has thrown up worrying issues about voter manipulation. There is a lack of clarity about who paid for many of the adverts, how much was spent on them and a lack of information about the way they were targeted at specific groups in society.

Online advertising has become all-pervasive over the past decade, but until last year the tech giants were not held accountable for implementing the basic standards of accountability that applies to advertising in the traditional media.

In the summer of 2018, Facebook, Google and Twitter committed themselves to a self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation to address the spread of online disinformation and fake news. One of the commitments was to provide transparency in online political advertising.

The Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University was commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to implement a monitoring process for Ireland during the European elections earlier this year to establish how well the tech companies were implementing this code. The findings indicate that the digital platforms are not properly complying with all the commitments they made.

Lack of clarity

More than 1,500 political adverts provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google were examined as part of the study. It uncovered a lack of clarity on who had paid for adverts and how much was spent on them. More worryingly, there was a lack of information about micro-targeting of specific groups. The only information made available concerned gender, age and geography but the platforms provide advertisers with a myriad of other targeting options, from attitudes and interests to network connections, which were not disclosed.

The researchers say it was not possible to arrive at a clear picture of the nature and scale of political advertising on the three platforms in Ireland due to inconsistencies in the data provided. They also found that issue-based adverts on topics like immigration and the environment, rather than election candidates or parties, were labelled by Facebook but not by Twitter nor Google.

The report highlights the need for the Government to act on its commitment to establish an electoral commission as a first step to protect the security of the electoral process and tackle disinformation. It also suggests the establishment of a searchable repository of online political advertising with information about the source, content and cost of adverts as well as their target audience and use of data.

Such changes should not be left at the discretion of the tech companies. Much stricter regulation of online political advertising at national and EU level is required to protect our democracy in a world where it is under threat on so many fronts.

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