The Grey Area Of Political Advertising – Do Political Influencers Have A Role To Play?

By Rohan Midha, MD, PMYB,

Politicians and influencers – a modern day match?

It’s well proven that influencers resonate with much of the public making them an ideal resource for shaping opinions through political advertising. In addition to being persuasive, the reach of influencers is one of the most cost-effective communication mediums out there, which would only serve to amplify their value to any campaign trail.

In a strange way influencers are becoming the new celebrity endorsement – attaching their name and reputation to a political party with the aim to persuade voters.

The evidence to support this theory is compelling. Research shows that 52% of influencers report having changed someone’s mind on an important issue, compared to 20% of the general public. Moreover, 44% of influencers say that an individual has either used an alternative public service or complained about one because of their communications compared to 14% of ordinary society.

So, it makes sense for political parties to want to include influencers as part of the campaign strategy to drive awareness and gather support.

What actually is the regulation on political activity and social media?

There are a multitude of questions surrounding the legality of using social media as a vehicle for political advertising. The Communications Act of 2003 specifies that it’s illegal if ‘an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature or if an advertisement which is directed towards a political end.’

However, there is a back door that allows politicians to utilise social media and drive their message as they see fit. The Advertising Standards Authority explicitly states that political ads in non-broadcast media whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums are exempt from the Advertising Code. That’s not just posters, newspapers and leaflets; this exemption applies to political ads online including in social media space.

There is a glaring vulnerability in the rules set out by various regulators that could potentially take action. Between the Electoral Commission, Information Commissioner’s Office and Advertising Standards Authority, there isn’t a single body that has clear jurisdiction over political advertising in non-broadcast media – and this is where the waters get murky and we potentially open up social media to exploitation.

Academics, campaigners and non-profit organisations are understandably concerned. They have conceded that there is not enough time to solve the many issues surrounding online political advertising for the general election. As such they are clamouring for social media powerhouses such as Facebook to voluntarily suspend all forms of political advertising from their platforms.

What are the loopholes likely being exploited?

It is well-documented that there are clear loopholes in Facebook’s policies. This has enabled some politicians to freely disseminate “fake news” through political advertisements on the platform. Many campaigners and members of the public have encouraged Facebook to shut down this type of activity on its platform.

Another point of contention is the lack of transparency around data use and how people are being targeted. The investigation into Cambridge Analytica and how they used data during the Brexit vote and US presidential election won by Donald Trump was revealing. The Digital, Culture, Media & Sports Committee spent 18 months digging into the scandal. It was concluded that weapons grade communication tactics were used during Brexit and that British election laws were not fit for purpose at the time.

To Facebook’s credit they have since taken action when it comes to extremist views however there is still a long way to go when it comes to more subtle approaches.

Could Influencers Really Swing An Election One Way Or Another?

The power of influencers has been evident on many occasions. In 2018, Taylor Swift, a celebrity not known for political rhetoric, caused a large spike in voter registration. This came after publishing an Instagram post in which she endorsed two democratic candidates and encouraged her followers to register to go cast their own votes.

With elections fast approaching in the UK, it doesn’t appear that enough has been done to ease the distress coming from some circles. There is a genuine belief that disinformation will run rampant but regulators have been slow to come up with the answers. It should be remembered that in the 2016 US presidential election approximately 70,000 voters in 3 states decided the winner in a country of over 300 million people.

This means political messaging does not need to influence the majority of the population. It can be aimed at smaller, key, segments of the public. As such, the number of people that could potentially swing the result one way or another is well within the reach of influencers. This goes for prominent influencers with millions of followers as well as micro-influencers who cater to niche demographics.

The Changing of The Guard

It will be interesting to see the evaluation of the 2019 general election campaigns. Perhaps the general public has grown tired of the same old tactics when it comes to political campaigns and want to be ‘pitched’ to in other mediums.

Additionally the rising number of millennials and the generation Z populace who want their voices heard could be making the biggest impact. Nonetheless, there is an evident shift, which means that predictable campaigns – with candidates repeatedly front and centre, posing with kids, social services workers, and the like – are no longer enough.

As a younger demographic slowly takes over from the old guard, influencers could yet have a bigger role to play in politics. Will they establish the same substantial footprint that can be seen in the private sector? Only time will tell. The coming weeks will be nothing short of intriguing.

Photo by Lou Batier on Unsplash

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