The dangers of targeted political advertising to the integrity of our democracy is once again the subject of intense the debate in the run up to the 12 December election. Should it be regulated? Should it be banned? Should social media companies take responsibility for fact-checking ads? EachOther examines what this phenomenon, which has allowed for the micro-targeted dissemination of misinformation on social media, means for our rights.
What’s The Issue?
Targeted Internet advertising in general began in the late 1990s and is now ubiquitous. Companies are able to access huge amounts of information on you based on your browsing habits, information you’ve added to your social media profiles, purchases you have made online, your Google searches, and more. This data can then be used to send targeted messages to increasingly specific groups of social media users.
The dangers of how this technology can be exploited for political ends hit international headlines in last year with the scandal surrounding the now-defunct British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The Observer revealed that the company had illegally harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent, providing the Vote Leave campaign with insights ahead of the Brexit referendum.
Concerns have been raised of the susceptibility of social media sites being used to intentionally spread “fake news”, such as by foreign powers trying to influence election outcomes. A report by the Intelligence and Scrutiny Committee of Parliament, about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election, is due to be published this year.
In the 2019 general election campaign, misinformation has already caused controversies. The BBC reported on a story from an ordinary Twitter user that went viral, which falsely claimed that the husband of the Liberal Democrat Leader, Jo Swinson, is paid by the European Union. All parties have had misinformation spread about them.
Twitter announced that it will ban all political advertising from November 22 ahead of this year’s general election, putting pressure on Facebook to follow suit.
However, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has so far refused requests to fact-check or ban political advertising. He is apparently open to limiting the ability of politicians to target narrow groups of users.
What About Rights?
The integrity of our free and fair elections is among the highest concerns in the debate around targeted political ads.
Article 3 of the first protocol of the Human Rights Convention, states that “free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
It could be argued that the advent that the current social media landscape is threatening the “conditions” necessary for the public to freely express its opinion. Today’s electorate is now subject to targeted political messaging based on identity, and the content shown to them is not always reliable and easily verifiable.
Our right to freedom of thought is also protected under Article 9 of the Human Rights Convention and Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
This right prevents public authorities from interfering in the rights of people to hold or change their beliefs, both religious and non-religious.
In order to be protected, a belief must concern important aspects of human life or behaviour, be sincerely held, and be worthy of respect in a democratic society. It is a qualified right, meaning public authorities can interfere – provided it does so in a lawful and proportionate way – when in the interests of protect public safety, among other reason.
It could be a stretch to argue that public authorities’ failure to address social media manipulation meets the legal threshold for breach of freedom of thought. But Simon McCarthy Jones, a professor in clinical psychology at Trinity College Dublin, has argued: “We should use these laws to demand that governments create societies that allow us to think freely.”
The advent of targeted advertising has also raised concerns over our right to privacy and our right not to be discriminated against – protected by Article 8 and Article 14 of the Convention – as well as data protection laws.
Earlier this month, a cross party committee of MPs published the findings of a report in which they heard “deeply troubling evidence” about companies using personal data to ensure that only people of a certain age or race are able to see a particular job opportunity or housing advertisement,
It argued that such discrimination, which would be “blatantly obvious” in the days of print advertising, is now difficult to detect and guard against at a time when content is personalised.
What Can Be Done?
How to solve the challenges raised by targeted political advertising is the source of endless debate – which we will not attempt to cover exhaustively here.
One solution will likely come with updating Britain’s body of “electoral law“, made up of hundreds of pieces of legislation. The Electoral Commission argues this needs to be revamped for the digital age, with the last significant act passed in 2000, before the advent of social media.
To this end, the Joint Committee on Human Rights made a number of recommendations earlier this month aimed at reforming the “broken” consent system online.
It called on the government to ensure “safe passage” on the internet by strengthening regulations, as well as establishing an online database which would allow UK citizens to easily see which companies hold data on them.
As has been demonstrated by Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising, corporations can also play an important role. McCarthy-Jones calls for them to adopt freedom of thought as a policy commitment, perform due diligence on how their activities may harm freedom of thought, and declare any “psychological tricks” they use to influence our behaviour.
Individual internet users can also take steps to protect themselves from manipulation by educating themselves in the tools of journalism to think critically about the information they come across and verify its accuracy. They can also vote with their feet and wallets to avoid the worst offending companies.
Featured image credit: Pxhere.