Benedict Pringle
Jun 18, 2020

The last political ad you will see on Facebook

Facebook's move to allow voters to block political advertising could be harmful to democracy.

The last political ad you will see on Facebook

Earlier this week, Facebook announced that users will be able to block political advertising from their feeds. 

The social media giant is making it easy to do; people can switch off political ads on Facebook or Instagram directly from any political or social issue ad that they are served. 

The next political ad you see on Facebook could be your last.

And Facebook’s definition of a political ad is broad; it includes ads for candidates, political parties, single-issue campaigns and community groups wanting to change society.

The roll-out of this new functionality has started in the US and by the autumn will reach other countries, such as the UK, where Facebook enforces political ad rules.

The reasons for Facebook taking these actions are understandable. The lack of regulation of political advertising has enabled a wide variety of political actors, from mainstream parties to malicious nation states, to behave badly, cause offence and be dishonest in their advertising.

This has facilitated some deeply concerning political events and contributed to the erosion of public trust in politics. 

Despite this, if hordes of people turn off political advertising on Facebook permanently, our democracy will be worse off.

Research shows that the more political advertising there is during an election, the more informed the electorate are about the issues at stake.

This is an incredibly obvious point to make, but it requires stating because too often political advertising is portrayed as some sort of societal ill.

Facebook has enabled political organisations to cheaply and easily communicate directly to voters without a journalistic filter.

We should resist a situation where political campaigns need to rely on newspaper owners, TV news broadcasters and influencers to be able to get their message out to an electorate.

Facebook ads are also an important tool in political fundraising and organisation; limiting the ability of campaigners to resource themselves and encourage activism is a deeply regressive step.

With the right rules in place, political ads can play an essential role in having a politically active and educated electorate – both of which are vital for a society that wants a flourishing marketplace of ideas. 

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has set out some simple steps that parliament and others can take to improve the transparency and accuracy of discourse in election advertising, and earlier this month the Advertising Standards Authority announced its support for electoral political regulation in the UK.

But due to the lack of action on this issue in Westminster and elsewhere, online media owners have started taking the matter into their own hands. Google, Twitter and now Facebook have all made changes in the past year to put tighter limits on political advertising on their platforms.

If politicians continue to refuse to update the rules around advertising in elections, it won’t be long before they are once again relying on media coverage to be able to get their message out to voters who need and deserve to hear a truthful version of it directly. 

Benedict Pringle is founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk

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