Some things that have been bubbling along for a while moved forward last week.

First, Facebook and Twitter launched new ad transparency initiatives. You can now view the ads that accounts are running. ‘Dark ads’ are dead.

Neither implementation is perfect. Discovery is still hard (you don’t know what you’re looking for, particularly for campaigns outside the political mainstream) and the information provided is the bare minimum (no targeting or spending information), but this is a step forward. Transparency at source is a good thing.

Second, the Electoral Commission published a report outlining how it would like to tighten up rules around digital ads (among other things). It recommended that Parliament legislate quickly, but the report lacks specifics about the dimensions of transparency it thinks are needed.

It’s good to see companies and democratic institutions moving in the right direction, but we’d like to see more concrete plans from them. We’d also like to see more political support for improved electoral law. It would be wrong for politicians to acknowledge the concerns of their constituents as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, then ignore calls for change because it doesn’t suit their own campaigning interests (they did this with the recent UK implementation of GDPR, the Data Protection Act, so there is recent precedent for this).

The challenges at hand are substantial. The big social media platforms operate in pretty much every country in the world. Each local flavour of politics will demand a different approach to developing new rules to suit local conditions. In each country, politicians may choose inertia as a way of serving their own interests. The platform companies may throw their hands up when confronted with complexity and local demands.

We think the only way to crack this issue is for platforms to offer the highest possible level of transparency (spending + targeting + helping people understand the difference between paid and organic reach + API access). This would make all data about political advertising available in such a way that people can build tools to help voters understand how it’s being used to reach and target them, as well as the rest of the electorate.

That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year.

For example, the data collected by the 10,000 or so people taking part in Who Targets Me makes discovering advertising on specific topics (e.g. Brexit) or that uses particular targeting (e.g. which candidates are trying to reach the over 60s in Manchester and what are they saying?) easier than using one of the new ‘transparency centers’.

Obviously we have lots of gaps in our data and can only do so much given our resources. True transparency on the part of the platform companies would make it easier to help people ‘read’ the political ads on social media.

That said, we don’t think the platforms should be responsible for deciding what information voters can see about campaigns. Regulators and politicians must, in the end, play a key role in opening that up. And so should individuals and civil society groups like Who Targets Me.

Achieving the highest possible standard of transparency and integrity for elections is everyone’s work, and we should do it together.


Also published on Medium.

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