Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising on its platform is a welcome move. Some commentators dismiss the significance on the basis that Twitter doesn’t carry a great deal of such advertising, with income streams a fraction of those of Facebook. But even accepting this and the calculated PR halo this announcement created, if you dismiss it you risk missing the point.  

Digital advertising provides an incredible opportunity for advertisers to reach consumers effectively and efficiently. The benefits of targeted advertising are sometimes lost in the debate over the use of personal data. While consumers still see advertising as a positive thing with some downsides rather than a negative thing with some upsides, advertising still languishes beneath banking and politics on the issue of trust. That’s just not good enough. As an industry we must do more to address the issues of obtrusiveness and bombardment of advertising we all experience online. We’re responding to that challenge on behalf of our members and our industry with proposals being set out in the coming weeks and months. 

However, despite this clear challenge, consumers and advertisers understand that the adverts they see and produce are held to a standard of being legal, decent, honest and truthful. The same cannot be said of political advertising, with the Advertising Standards Authority’s remit not covering political advertising. A lack of political will from the main political parties means the laws governing political advertising are archaic and unfit for the age of digital advertising. In short, the same politicians that call for further advertising restrictions do not see fit to hold their own advertising to the same standards. 

In that context the move by Twitter is hugely relevant. Facebook’s answer is transparency in the form of an online library of political advertising appearing on their platform. The challenge comes in marrying the benefits of digital advertising with a healthy democracy. Regardless of how much money you take from political advertising, recognising the threat to the democratic system either through misinformation or interference from foreign states adds to the pressure for wholesale reform. I agree that social media platforms should not carry the burden of becoming the arbiters of truth, legislation must provide the floors and ceilings for them. 

That’s why we support the Coalition for Reform of Political Advertising and their four point plan. The home for reform should – in our view - be the Electoral Commission. We can’t solve this issue before the upcoming election. So, in the meantime we support other organisations in calling for Facebook and Google to pause political advertising for the duration of the campaign. But, when we get through this General Election, politicians must grasp the nettle and hold political advertising to the same standards as they expect from our members.

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Written 05th November 2019
By James Barge