Are social media sites being politically responsible?

Posted on November 21, 2019

 

With the UK general election taking place three weeks today, Facebook and Twitter have taken very different approaches to how they manage political advertising and activity, but both have received criticism from some quarters.

Facebook has adopted something of an ‘anything goes’ approach to advertising, and political parties (particularly the Conservatives) have been spending heavily on Facebook ads since the election was announced. The Liberal Democrats shelled out over £32,000 on a single ad aimed to encourage millennials to vote for them, although a BBC video suggests young people were not too impressed by it or other official political ads on Facebook aimed at their age group.

There’s also the question of who is seeing these ads and why? I spotted the below ad on my own timeline, because Facebook thinks I am “similar to Boris Johnson’s customers.” After much deliberation, I decided not to delete my Facebook account or throw my laptop out of the window!

Political parties are not allowed to advertise on TV, so social media opens up a new market for them, but not all of the political advertising we see on Facebook is run directly by parties. The BBC has given details of five groups that are paying for Facebook ads, and with names like Working4UK, Best for Britain and Parents’ Choice, it might not be immediately apparent that they all have political agendas.

This raises a familiar doubt about Facebook and it’s transparency, or lack thereof. This is not only the case in terms of how it allows advertisers to portray themselves and make dubious claims, but also in how it decides who should be seeing these ads – a point we discussed in another recent blog.

Should Facebook be allowing groups to ‘buy’ political reach? Twitter doesn’t think so and has taken an altogether different tact of stopping political ads, with CEO Jack Dorsey saying the company believes money should not be a factor in how a political message is heard. The policy formally comes into effect tomorrow.

That hasn’t stopped the platform facing criticism over how it manages political activity, however. A high-profile example of this came during Tuesday night’s ITV debate between Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, for which the Conservative Party Press Office account temporarily rebranded itself as ‘factcheckUK’.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab pointed out that the banner on the page clearly stated that it was run by CCHQ (though many people may not be familiar with that abbreviation or understand its connection with the party) and said that “no-one will have been fooled” by the rebrand, but independent fact-checking service Full Fact accused the account of “providing party lines” while masquerading as a fact checker.

Labour MP Dawn Butler criticised Twitter, arguing that it could have taken action by removing the ‘blue tick’ from the account to indicate doubts over its authenticity. This is a difficult one, because it could be argued that for the informed Twitter user, it would be better to see that this was a recognised Conservative Party account acting under a different guise, rather than believe it was an unauthenticated fact-checking page. However, Twitter does say in its Help Center that it may remove verification on a page for reasons including:

“Intentionally misleading people on Twitter by changing one’s display name or bio.”

This suggests that removing the account’s blue tick may have been an appropriate action, and interestingly, the Help Center carried a notice on Wednesday to say it was temporarily not accepting verification requests.

Political discourse, especially when it happens as quickly as in the current climate, is a challenge for social media to manage and it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. Even so, it appears that – much like the big two political parties – the big two social media sites could be doing a lot more to convince the public that the situation is under control.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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