Wednesday 08 November, 2017
Regulation social media

Social media platforms allow any user to pay to promote their content to target groups of their choice. Most of us are if not comfortable with that fact, at least aware of the capability.

The targeting options for such campaigns are staggeringly comprehensive, allowing segmentation by age, sex, location, vocation, hobbies and even economic background. Social media has connected people in a way never before possible, conflated political debate and created the greatest CRM tool ever produced. It is both the best and worst thing about social media marketing.

The drawback of such freedom to find your audience is that we’ve all become target markets for products, or indeed for politics. The Fake News phenomenon, and the rise in “alternative” news sources has had at least some impact on the debate during the US election and EU referendum. Social media has given everyone a voice, the problem is that we don’t always know whose voice we’re actually listening to.

Questions have been raised over who funded digital advertisements during the EU referendum, how users were targeted with social media advertisements during the UK election, the links between certain politicians, Wikileaks and data analysis, and there have been recent concerns over anonymously promoted Twitter ads attacking Qatar and their hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The US has had its own problems with political advertising on social media networks. An estimated 126 million people “may have been served” political content during the 2016 US election which originated in Russia. Accounts from Russia are alleged to have generated around 1.4 million tweets during the run-in to the campaign. There have even been exposes on social media “personalities” who don’t exist in real life; accounts pertaining to be expert doctors, psychologists, freedom fighters or military strategists, quoted by the mainstream or traditional press.

The social media companies themselves have been quick to lend their support to the initiative. Facebook’s Erin Egan stated that the company would “look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution.” The solutions presented will need to be understood by everyone who uses promoted social media content for their product or cause.

Twitter announced their Advertising Transparency Centre, and Facebook announced additional transparency, providing more information on promotions, how long they’ve been running, why you have been targeted, and a clearly identifiable visual cue for “electioneering ads that refer to a clearly identified candidate for any elected office.” If you promote a political cause on the platform, you’ll have to be willing to provide historical data about your social spend, and be willing to identify yourself as a political advertiser.

All of this is aimed at staying ahead of the legislative curve. In the US, a cross party group has introduced the Honest Ads Act, to increase transparency around social ads, while Bob Posner of the UK Electoral Commission has written an extensive piece on how they can look to regulate the data, cost and methods in which promoted social media posts are utilised.

There is a varying degree of political advertising in other media. Political adverts are banned from being broadcast on TV under the 2003 Communications Act, although parties are given designated airtime around elections; everyone in the UK will be familiar with the dulcet tones of “now follows a party political broadcast by…” in the early evenings.

The issue is less clear cut for newspapers. Until 1999, political advertising in “non-broadcast media” was subject to ASA rules. However, concerns over the legality of political free speech under the 1998 Human Rights Act, and a lack of political consensus on the issue have meant that “political advertising” remains an editorial rather than legislative decision.

The digital world has struggled to adapt to any kind of universal legislation, whether that’s in the attribution of content, the legality of gifs, the rules on advertising on Instagram or even the guidelines on competitions on Facebook (you can’t run “Tag and Share” competitions!). Imposing rules on what people can and can’t promote, or even what constitutes an advert will be challenging to say the least.

In the digital landscape, it is clear that regulation is not only coming, but it is being welcomed by the social media giants. The question is not if the platforms will implement rules on political advertising, but how stringent it will be. There may be agreement on the need for regulation, but how that is implemented (billing transparency, should political ads be permitted from outside the target country, gathering of targeting data to name a few) remain points of contention. One suspects this is only the beginning of a never-ending debate.

These legislative updates pose fundamental questions for how we’ve all used social media to date. Political posts on social media may never be truly regulated in the way traditional media has been, but there will certainly be greater scrutiny and heftier punishments for breaking the rules, whatever they may be. A major party or politician will almost certainly fall foul of these updates through either ignorance of the changes or the speed at which they’re rolled out.

It also opens up a significant debate about the whole of social media marketing. Should you have to tell an audience that your promoted blog post is technically an advert? Should marketing agencies have to highlight that they are acting as third parties when they post on behalf of a client? What constitutes a Political Advert and what is merely political opinion? Regulation is coming, and it’ll make social media more transparent, but significantly more complex.