We get it. People are pissed off at politicians. One in particular.
So why shouldn’t we regulate political ads to make sure they’re truthful?
Here’s 11 reasons why not:
- Someone adjudicating for truth in political advertising must be very, very impartial. But who’s very, very impartial when it comes to politics? Is the BBC impartial enough for you? Would the left or the right think they’re getting a fair deal from the Beeb when it adjudicates against them? Neither does currently, so what would you change about an organisation avowed to impartiality for over a century to make that happen? Perhaps government is the answer instead? The US Government recently set up a disinformation task force, staffed with experienced and respected people in the field. Parts of the media quickly dubbed it a “Ministry of Truth” and the unit was disbanded within weeks. We think it’s politically impossible to create a body, no matter how arms length and politically balanced, to make these types of judgements. Furthermore, no one would want the job.
- How long would a regulator take to earn the authority to do this work? The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which is often asked to comment on parties’ financial plans, was founded in 1969 and is stuffed full of expert economists. Would it also be 50 years before a new institution is trusted? What happens if you make a big mistake in checking ads, how quickly does that authority evaporate? Could it ever be rebuilt? Perhaps it’s a house of cards.
- Who gets to staff it? Running it anonymously would be terrible for credibility. But your own leadership and staff are going to disagree with the judgements from time to time, get leaky, talk to journalists and so on. The moment you know the make up of the regulator, you’ll find people starting to pick at their political leanings and track record. See 1.
- There are just too many ads to adjudicate on. In the week to 6th May, there were 16,000 political ads in the UK on Facebook alone. Thousands more on Google. Thousands of leaflets printed. Thousands of pieces of direct mail. Thousands of other pieces of material. What regulator could quickly deal with and sign-off the claims made in all those? None.
- You want to pre-clear all those ads so they’re checked before any voters are exposed to them? What happens if you can’t? Do you hold back someone’s campaign while you work on it? The election’s next week! You’re stopping us campaigning at a critical moment! As a result, the moment the election’s over, your regulator is getting disbanded.
- Even if you limit the scope of interest and give the regulator the remit to check “factful” or “quantifiable” claims, it’s still a large number of messages, making a large number of claims. Can you perfectly divide the “factful” from the “non-factful” ads? No. So now you have a grey area. Which ads do you decided to check? Which do you leave alone? Anyone observing the process will play in those margins. “We were stretching the claim to make a point.” or “It was ironic. A bit of a joke.” Good luck with all that.
- Can organisations that are already set up to do this type of work cope with the volume? No. They make a set of editorial judgements and resource-based decisions. Now you’re doing the same. Again, this poses a problem for balance. How do you deploy those resources accurately, all the time?
- Do you know everything about everything? You’ll need expertise on every topic under the sun. And judgement too.
- What if you only check the “big” ads? Well, how do you work out if they’re going to be big or not? Many ads run for a day or two, then disappear. How can I tell what a “big” leaflet is when there’s no way of knowing how many households it will go to? By the time it’s “big” it’s already out there. Now you’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
- As a regulator, what data do you publish so you can be transparent and accountable? What if you find one party tries to publish more lies than another? Are you sure you’re judging everything in a non-partisan, neutral way? If you publish stats, they’re going to be used against you. Can you resist the pressure? Are you sure you won’t sway a little one way or the other?
- Finally (for now), would a regulator be cost effective in the context of British elections? Since 2018, UK political and issue advertisers have spent a little over £105m on Facebook ads (per the company’s own definition). If you limit that to just electoral political ads, you’re likely talking about just under £20m. How much would a regulator capable of this work cost for four years? £10m? Is that a small price to pay to protect the public from lies? Or a heinous waste of money in the generally pretty threadbare way British elections are run? Democracy is priceless, but we run it on the cheap. What else could you do with £10m to improve the conduct and performance of British democracy? Are you sure this is the best use of cash?
Lying is a problem in politics, but it’s one with some well-established solutions. Correcting the record is a job for journalists, fact checkers, opposing political parties and campaign groups all of whom can exert as much pressure as they can.
As it stands, the politician in question leads a party that’s 10+ points behind in the opinion polls and is on the verge of being chucked out and replaced by his party. This is happening with no regulator for truth in political advertising. Doesn’t that reflect the true cost of lying? Isn’t that the accountability system we should strengthen?
As comforting an answer as it might seem to some, regulating for truth in political advertising is a fever dream.
It shouldn’t happen.