Will ‘dark ads’ crackdown solve mystery of Brexit Defence Force? – Martyn McLaughlin

There are signs a long-awaited overhaul of online political adverts is coming, but will it be enough, asks Martyn McLaughlin.

Is it a sign of fecklessness or stubbornness that, more than a year on from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, online political advertising remains a lawless Wild West?

The glacial pace of governmental consultations in the age of Brexit means the questions that were being asked last spring have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

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It is no wonder that Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, has reiterated her calls for a “very clear change in law” which will compel parties and campaigners to disclose who is paying for the adverts.

Facebook has warned that foreign agents are trying to recruit users in other nations in order to purchase political adverts on the platform on their behalf (Picture Yui Mok/PA)

As long ago as last June, the commission warned that “urgent improvements” were needed to ensure transparency for voters in the digital age.

It demanded governments and legislators across the UK take action to ensure online advertising materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners must also clearly state who has created them, in much the same way that printed pamphlets and letters are required to have an imprint.

It also recommended a wholesale review of spending return disclosures so as to include the money that goes towards online ad campaigns, and said social media firms should label political adverts and detail plans to catalogue them in online databases.

After nearly a year in which the majority of these issues have been kicked into the long grass, there are signs that the gears of government are slowly beginning to grind.

At the weekend, the Cabinet Office announced that extending the imprint regime to digital communications is “essential for promoting fact-based political debate” and tackling disinformation.

It has promised to work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to look at how such regulations can be put into practice and, crucially, “which third party organisations it would extend to”.

A detailed technical proposal for the digital imprint regime will follow later this year, but unless the likes of Facebook and Twitter fall under that ‘third party’ category, the proposal’s bark will lack any bite.

Granted, both those firms have gone above and beyond the commission’s recommendations by introducing databases of political ads, but they merely pay lip-service to the concept of transparency.

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Twitter, for instance, only discloses the ads an account has run in the past seven days, and includes only rudimentary billing information about who has paid for the campaigns. There is no detail at all about the reach of the ads, or the way in which they were targeted.

Facebook at least reveals the demographic breakdown of how political ads were targeted, but its claim that all disclaimers must include “information on the entity that paid for the ad” is laughable.

Only last week, Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, had the gall to warn that foreign agents were trying to recruit users in other nations in order to purchase political adverts on the platform on their behalf.

In pursuing such a circuitous route, Facebook’s strict new rules – which include providing proof of a postal address in the country where the ad is places – would be satisfied. “No security protocol is foolproof,” cautioned Mr Gleicher.

That is especially true when the protocols put in place are about as robust as a water biscuit. The information Facebook requires – and subsequently publishes – is so vague and unhelpful, it might as well reprint the horoscope entries from a back issue of Take a Break.

Take just one of adverts it has permitted in the past week by way of example. The ad, promoting a page called Brexit Votes Matter, called on people to “stop the eco loonies” and bemoaned the “endless lies and lunacy from the doom and gloom brigade”.

The disclaimer, however, includes no individuals, let alone addresses, telephone numbers, or websites. Instead, it states the ad was placed by a group known as Brexit Defence Force.

You can say what you like about Facebook’s lax privacy policies, but when it comes to organisations with quasi-paramilitary undertones, their secrets are well and truly safe.

When you consider that other Big Tech players such as Google, the owners of YouTube, and Snapchat do not have any kind of transparency underpinning political advertising on their platforms, the idea that the industry has the willingness and ability to regulate itself is laughable.

The question is, then, whether the UK Government has the backbone to enact meaningful change. Even if the need for transparency is enshrined in statute, it means little if a campaign group can simply submit a name without providing any details about its funding or donors, as per the Facebook model.

A sound starting point would be the introduction of a centralised searchable repository of ads across all social media platforms which explicitly spells out the identity of a group’s executives and directors, as well as its donors. Anything short of that would do little to address the integrity crisis at the heart of British political life.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope, as discontent with the existing system grows and the calls for change intensify. At a time when the European election campaign is in full swing, it is telling to see who has been the biggest spender on Facebook advertising in the UK in the past week, forking out a hefty £28,000.

The answer, laden in irony, is the Electoral Commission.