Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Nick Stringer: 2024 – Unmasking a web of political deception

By Nick Stringer, a global technology, public policy, and regulatory affairs adviser. His extensive experience includes serving as the former Director of Regulatory Affairs at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK).

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” Former US Democrat Politician & Academic, Daniel ‘Pat’ Moynihan.

In 2024, the global stage is set for one of the most pivotal election years in recent history. Taiwan has already cast the die, marking the beginning of a series of democratic exercises across nearly 70 countries. Brace yourself for the heavyweight battles in the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, India, South Africa, and the European Union. The outcomes will be seismic, reshaping the global political landscape.

But with a whopping four billion people wielding voting power, the looming question is: Will 2024 be the year of an information ragnarok (moral chaos)? The stage is set for a battle royale of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, fuelled by the explosive mix of digital warfare and the ubiquitous integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The lack of stringent regulations on political advertising in many countries is the chink in the armour, leaving us vulnerable to a barrage of deceit.

Welcome to the latest installment of ‘ByteWise Insights,’ where we cut through the digital noise to dissect the impact of technology on our lives and explore potential public policy solutions. This piece skips the well-trodden debates on misinformation and disinformation. Instead, it zooms in on a glimmer of hope emerging from Europe – a beacon of light in the murky world of political advertising regulation. While Europe’s proposed plan represents a stride in the right direction, its effectiveness may take time to materialise (and certainly after the European Parliament elections in June).

Post-Truth Democracy: Traversing the Minefield

In the battleground of democracy, the need for clear, transparent, and accurate information is non-negotiable. Yet, in the digital age, with its social media frenzy and marketing merry-go-round, this pursuit is akin to traversing a minefield. Enter ‘alternative facts’ and ‘disinformation’, the dark arts threatening the very essence of our democratic process.

As digital technology, often underpinned by advertising, infiltrates every aspect of our lives, political spending hits a new stratosphere. In 2024, the US alone is expected to splurge a mind-bending $16 billion on political advertising, a 30% jump from the last election. Connected TV ads – video advertising that runs on digital television sets connected to the internet – and the omnipresence of AI add new dimensions to this financial splurge in politics. The UK and India are expected to follow suit with eye-watering amounts, fuelling a rise in misinformation. Remember the notorious Vote Leave bus in the UK or the manipulated audio of UK Labour Party Leader, Sir Keir Starmer? Prepare for more.

Bridging the Regulatory Gap in Electoral Advertising

While brands face consequences for misleading claims in advertising, political parties enjoy a regulatory free-for-all. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a gold standard in advertising regulation (with analogous regulatory bodies worldwide), stops short of overseeing political ads, leaving a glaring regulatory gap. This disparity demands a comprehensive approach to political advertising, mirroring the standards applied to brand advertising.

The basis of effective advertising lies in establishing trust, a principle universally acknowledged in the marketing world. According to a survey by Reform Political Advertising, conducted by YouGov, 87% of the UK public support rules for factual claims in political advertising.

Relegated To The ‘Too Difficult’ Box

In the domain of political advertising, there is a divergence among industry tech giants. The likes of Amazon and TikTok have chosen to abstain, deeming it too risky. In contrast, Meta and Google cautiously adopt transparency measures without fact-checking claims. After brief hiatuses, Twitter and Spotify have reentered the political ad arena.

However, a noticeable void persists, underscoring the necessity for regulatory enhancements. The UK’s imprint law strives to inject greater transparency into political advertising. Nevertheless, the Electoral Commission, responsible for overseeing UK elections and enforcing the new law alongside the police, acknowledges its potential obsolescence, especially regarding the absence of transparency requirements for AI use.

Reform Political Advertising’s code of good practice represents a significant advancement but hinges on securing major political support within the UK. This code is built upon the recommendation of a report by the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, chaired by film producer and retired Lord, David Puttnam.

The report recommends that experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, UK Communications regulator Ofcom, and the UK Statistics Authority, collaborate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. It also proposes that UK political parties work together with these regulators to establish a political advertising code of practice, complete with sanctions, restricting inaccurate advertising during a UK parliamentary or mayoral election or referendum. The recommendation, which was – in fact – advocated by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life back in 1998, was dismissed by the UK Government, expressing apprehensions about its potential to impede freedom of speech, ultimately consigning it to the ‘too difficult box’.

Towards A Global Approach?

The borderless expanse of the internet, coupled with the pervasive influence of global tech platforms, forms a compelling argument for adopting a unified global strategy. This notion took centre stage in my inaugural ‘ByteWise Insights’ essay.. The US, with its system emphasising political advertising transparency, could provide a blueprint, but independent fact-checking is still required. New Zealand shows that the regulation of ‘advocacy advertising’ can work in addressing both transparency and fact-checking.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) is on the brink of enacting a groundbreaking law mandating transparency in political ads, drawing the attention of the global community. This EU-wide legislation demands clear disclosure in political advertising, encompassing information such as the source, expenditure, election linkage, and targeted demographics. This proactive step also aims to curb foreign interference in elections. The initiative builds upon Europe’s Data Protection Regulation and the ongoing fight against misinformation and disinformation via the EU Digital Services Act and the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation.

Truthful Political Advertising: A Debt We Owe

Democracy demands transparency and accountability. Casting our vote should come with the assurance of knowing who’s behind the political ad and who foots the bill. Plans are afoot in Europe which takes us towards this, but the real challenge lies in separating fact from fiction. While the freedom of speech holds significant importance in our society, doesn’t the late Pat Moynihan’s perspective still resonate? Should we not exercise this right responsibly and refrain from distorting facts, especially when substantial consequences are at play?

Failure on this front is surely a slap in the face of democracy and a disservice to those who fought – and continue to fight – for our right to vote, a sacrifice we dare not forget.

Columns, Opinion

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