Social media experts & politicians must work together to regulate political advertising online

Posted On: 
8th June 2017

The University of Exeter assess the role of digital marketing and campaigning has played in the General Election and asks if this area must now be better regulated.

The Labour and Conservative parties are expected to have spent at least £1m on Facebook advertising in the general election campaign.

In the run-up to today’s general election, the Labour and Conservative parties are expected to have spent at least £1m on Facebook advertising. The Conservative Party triggered a wave of targeted Facebook advertisements aimed at undermining Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. As with the US election, this sparks serious concern over the lack of regulation of social media advertising, and its role in swaying election results, prompting a formal investigation in the UK. What is the role of digital marketing in supposedly autonomous, democratic processes? How might the sophisticated tools of digital marketing be used to influence a populous and undermine democracy?

Because we all feel sure that we make our own decisions – such as deciding who to vote for – it’s sometimes difficult to see how we might be influenced by digital marketing campaigns that are seamlessly tailored into our social networking and web-browsing experiences, perfectly targeted to our interests that we have shared on the very same pages. The Facebook algorithm, in half of a blink of an eye, can generate adverts tailored by all the information you have ever exposed, however briefly, to the world-wide-web, from that random Facebook ‘like’ five years ago of your ex-best-friend’s ex-boyfriend taking a selfie at a club in Ibiza to your most recent credit card transaction.

Whilst the bias of traditional media might seem obvious to most, the effects of sophisticated digital marketing tools that create echo chambers ensuring, for example, that left-wingers are reading left-wing content by continually posting it on newsfeeds or using banner ads on other websites, are less obvious. However, it is becoming evident that these actions have very real affects. We need not look far for evidence that social media had a pivotal role in recent elections: both Trump’s team and Brexit campaigners have acknowledged the ‘decisive’ role of Facebook in their victories.

The issue with using digital marketing techniques for political means is that there is a tangible, material outcome. This isn’t a superficial matter of being prompted to book a holiday to the Canadian Rockies after an impulsive internet search for flight prices. The very tenets of democracy that politicians claim to value and cherish is increasingly under threat.

Whilst traditional media is highly regulated, the lack of digital media regulation may reflect bureaucrats’ inability to comprehend the behemoth that the Facebook advertising algorithm has become. The pressing issue of regulation, paradoxically, must also be driven by the very politicians who used digital marketing analytics to become elected in the first place. It isn’t surprising that there is a lack of regulatory initiative.

It is essential now that social media experts, academics and government work together to form an extensive and cohesive regulatory framework so we can preserve our democratic process. I hope the formal investigation opened by the Information Commissioner into the use of data analytics for political purposes is a welcome first step in this process.