Bryce Edwards: Electioneering on Facebook under scrutiny

Bryce Edwards: Electioneering on Facebook under scrutiny

The National Party is in trouble again for its Facebook advertising campaigning. Late last week, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against one of the party’s social media ads targeting the Government’s vehicle efficiency feebate scheme. The authority ruled it was “likely to confuse or deceive consumers”. The ad had claimed that the feebate scheme would cause the costs of some cars to be increased by $6000 when, in fact, the highest direct fee would be $3000.

National had provided argumentation for its claim, which the ASA ruled “insufficient”, and the party now plans to appeal the decision – see Craig McCulloch’s National told to pull online attack ad, but will appeal ruling.

According to Newshub’s Dan Satherley, despite the ASA’s ruling, the offending ad remained online and there was nothing the ASA could do about this: “As of Friday, the ads remained online. The ASA has no statutory power to force the party to take them down. The ASA has plans to set up a rapid-response unit to tackle misleading political ads with far more urgency next year, which is an election year” – see: National to appeal after ‘car tax’ advert ruled misleading.

National argued that the party had followed the spirit of the law but the ASA have got them on a technical breach: “It has been the previous view and practice of the Advertising Standards Authority that the spirit of the code is more important than any minor technical breaches… People have a right to express their views and this right should not be unduly or unreasonably restricted by rules.”

The whole issue raises questions about whether New Zealand is headed into an environment of “post-truth” online advertising of dirty politics and deliberate deception, as has been witnessed in other political systems. There is increasing debate about “weaponised advertising technology” being used by political parties.

There have been a number of recent media stories investigating the surge of Facebook advertising by various parties, with a strong concern about the dangers this poses for democracy, especially since many of the ads are dodgy. For the best investigation of this, see Q+A’s seven-minute video (and article): Voters warned to prepare for dirty politics as battle steps up online a year out from election.

Here’s the main point: “A year out from the General Election, political observers are warning voters to prepare for some dirty politics, with the battle for votes increasingly being fought online. TVNZ1’s Q+A has discovered New Zealanders are already being targeted with some of the less-than-transparent tactics seen overseas. Like never before, National is churning out the attack ads on social media, it’s campaign machine already in full throttle.”

National is particularly under scrutiny, with allegations that the party is moving into some sort of Trump-like post-truth way of operating. For example, Peter Dunne highlights in the Q+A item how National leader Simon Bridges recently claimed “one person’s facts are another person’s misinformation” when justifying misleading claims by a National MP.

The suggestion is that National is importing aggressive and negative social media tactics from its counterparts overseas – with many noting a recent trip by Bridges to meet with the Australian Liberal Party and Scott Morrison, who were notable for their aggressive social media campaigning that helped them pull off their surprise election victory this year. As the Q+A item notes, the Liberals “had the help of some Kiwi digital whizzes – Young Nats Sean Topham and Sam Guerin, and social media strategist Kelly Boxall, another Kiwi who has recently been working in Simon Bridges’ office.”

The item features Labour’s election campaign chair Megan Woods vowing that Labour won’t be going negative in its election next year, but pointing the finger at National: “I’m worried that we are seeing these green shoots of a reasonably desperate and negative campaign that’s coming through already”.

National’s campaign chair is Paula Bennett, and in the video she defends the party’s rather simplistic attack messages as being helpful for voters: “People don’t have a lot of time in their lives to sit down and wade their way through a 40-page document like this Government sometimes puts out, that literally says nothing. So we are able to take that, condense it down to what matters”.

The social media company Topham Guerin is apparently not actually being employed yet by National, according to Henry Cooke. However he notes that the party’s “current campaigning shows much similarity to the ads used by the Liberals in Australia” – see: Facebook ads will dominate the next election – but our politicians don’t have to tell us about them.

Cooke points to National’s heavy use of Facebook advertising, saying that at one point the party had 14 separate advertisements running. But the parties of Government have also embraced this platform: “Labour also runs a large number of ads on Facebook – 15 as of Thursday evening. Most of these ads promoted Labour policies, both nationally and in specific regions, or simply asked users to sign up for updates on the page. But Labour and the Greens have dipped their toes into negative Facebook campaigning.”

The attractiveness of Facebook advertising is outlined by Cooke: “Facebook ads are much cheaper to both produce and broadcast than traditional television advertising, and can be targeted at minute slices of audience and easily tested with those audiences.”

The question is whether there is enough regulation of these advertisements, especially given the increasing fears about “political parties posting untrue or exaggerated content”. As a possible solution, Cooke points to a new Facebook transparency tool that has been introduced, which might help keep the campaigning cleaner: “The ‘Ad Library Report’ is mandatory in several countries and allows the public to track every ad a political party or issue group puts out on the platform, and see how much money is being spent and who the ad is targeted at.” It keeps an archive of all the ads run by political parties and advocacy groups – so even if a Facebook ad is only up for a short period it can still be located after the fact.

Unfortunately, Cooke reports that none of the political parties have yet signed up to the tool, despite its availability. National is quoted about this: “We are already subject to a rigorous approval process of our ads by Facebook, and public transparency of the ads we are actively running on Facebook at any one time. We have yet to consider the Ad Library Report function in Facebook, and will no doubt make a decision on this in due course.”

Cooke also explores the reluctance, or lack of ability, of authorities to regulate social media political advertising in his article, Stopping viral misinformation in the next election will be a task for all of us. He adds that there’s “good reason” to avoid too much regulation: “We respect free speech, especially political speech.”

New Zealand’s official election agency is a focus for some of this debate: “The Electoral Commission regulates political ads on the authorisation level – but has no jurisdiction over truthfulness.” Cooke does suggest that “The Electoral Commission could look into demanding that parties be more transparent about their online ad spending, if Facebook itself would make them.”

Instead, it’s the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that has responsibility for dealing with claims of accuracy. But, it’s “a voluntary industry body with no legal power to compel anyone to do anything. It also generally takes about two weeks to deal with a complaint, although it does have a quicker response team during elections.”

The role of the ASA is discussed further by RNZ’s Colin Peacock, who reports: “For the last election the ASA ran a ‘fast-track’ process during the campaign period which required a response from the advertiser and any other relevant party within 24 hours of a complaint – and its website says most complaints were settled within three or four days. The ASA told Mediawatch the arrangements for next year’s election have yet to be determined” – see: Oncoming online onslaught of paid political ads?

Peacock points out another important part of the issue – that a lot of Facebook and social media ads are taxpayer funded. It’s unclear to what extent current ads are paid for out of parliamentary funding budgets, but certainly when it comes to the election they will be taxpayer-funded. Peacock explains: “Electoral law changed in 2017 to allow political parties to spend more of their own money on online ads – as well as $750,000 previously earmarked by the Electoral Commission for opening and closing addresses on TV and radio.”

This “weaponised advertising technology” is also discussed by Katie Kenny and Tommy Livingston in a good feature article which discusses “the risks of a post-truth political landscape” – see: Can Kiwis tell fact from fake news in the leadup to the 2020 elections?

In this, a distinction is made between misinformation and disinformation: “While misinformation often arises out of genuine political debate, disinformation is typically a covert attempt by a maligned state or interest group to distort public views.” The suggestion is that it’s the use of the latter which could be a challenge for New Zealand democracy, as it has been elsewhere. The argument is: “Disinformation campaigns contributed to the rise of President Donald Trump in the United States and to Brexit in the United Kingdom.”

Both major parties accuse each other of producing “fake news”, and the article cites challenges that have been made to them to commit not to. Tom Barraclough, who is researching how to detect the use of “deep fakes”, says: “I have not seen any commitment by political parties to refrain from using manipulated imagery or video”.

Technology commentator Paul Brislen also identifies in this article that it’s the Facebook platform that is particularly “dangerous”. This is because “There are growing trends among older people to just use Facebook as a source of news and that alarms me”. Young people are of less concern he explains: “Today’s students are being taught critical thinking skills in the classroom and know not to believe everything they read online”.

This week RNZ’s podcast, The Detail, also looked at the rise of social media amplifying so-called fake news, asking: Is post-truth politics creeping into New Zealand?

In this, Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva suggests that “post-truth” manipulation of voters has always been in politics, particularly with the central role of political party spin-doctors, but that it is potentially becoming worse with the use of Facebook and so forth: “I guess the question some people raise is, with the rise of social media, this eroding trust in politicians from the public, and the ability to amplify misinformation, or simplistic soundbites, or key phrases that you want to get out – being able to do that through Facebook, Twitter, or other mediums – has that made it worse?”

As to whether we should worry about the effectiveness of the surge of Facebook ads, it’s worth noting that Claire Robinson – who is the New Zealand authority on political advertising, and published a very good book on its history last week – has given reason not to worry: “Decades of international research has failed to find solid evidence that political ads (of any kind) have any effect on changing a voter’s mind and therefore manipulating the outcome of individual elections” – see: How Facebook has revolutionised the art of political persuasion.

Robinson says that we should be more worried about how governing political parties are now more inclined to put out official information via their Facebook pages instead of through traditional government channels. She says: “Today, video policy announcements are as – or more – likely to be posted on a Labour, New Zealand First or Green Party social media feed as they are to be logged as formal government documents on the Beehive website.”

She suggests this is “insidious” and “potentially more damaging to our democracy” because it means “the lines between the interests of, and accountability to, the public and the political party get blurred”.

In a similar way, this week the Herald’s Claire Trevett has commented that Jacinda Ardern “uses social media in a more cunning way than any Prime Minister has before”, explaining that she “enjoys a benefit none of her predecessors really had, one that was delivered to her by the Twitter and Facebook: easy livestreaming” – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s social media stealth propaganda (paywalled).

Trevett also challenges Simon Bridges’ recent claim that Ardern spends too much time on Twitter: “it is untrue. Ardern has tweeted only three times this year. Bridges has sent out at least 30 in the last month alone. The last time Ardern tweeted was in May to acknowledge the death of former Australian PM Bob Hawke. She did not even tweet about meeting Mr Twitter – although Dorsey did.”

Finally, there will be no surprises about what politician is doing the best on Facebook this year, see Zane Small and Taylor Sincock’s report from April about New Zealand’s most Facebook-savvy MPs revealed.