Wednesday 12 December 2018

Oireachtas to tackle online ads, but fake news a bigger issue

The lack of clear regulation for platforms like Facebook has facilitated overseas interference in elections, psychographic targeting, the misuse of personal information and breaching of spending limits. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The lack of clear regulation for platforms like Facebook has facilitated overseas interference in elections, psychographic targeting, the misuse of personal information and breaching of spending limits. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Every referendum and election of the last few years has been dogged by worries about misinformation and fake news. It's all the internet's fault, of course. The lack of clear regulation for platforms like Facebook has facilitated overseas interference, psychographic targeting, the misuse of personal information and breaching of spending limits. But that's changing. Governments around the world are considering how to better regulate online communications, including ours.

The Government has announced an open policy forum with political parties, industry organisations, academia, civil society and NGOs following an initial report on the security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation from an interdepartmental group. So what did this report say? It said that the risk to the electoral process in Ireland was low, but micro-targeted advertising was singled out as a particular issue given the lack of transparency and regulation. So we shouldn't be too worried. But we should pull up our socks.

But there's a problem here, and it's one of scope. The Government needs to widen the remit of its considerations. Focusing on online advertising alone fails to acknowledge the depth of the problem. The organic sharing of misinformation masquerading as truth is potentially more damaging and wide reaching than online advertising. For every Cambridge Analytica that employs dark arts to help candidates, there are potentially far more individuals and groups - not to mention armies of bots - who can share misinformation without spending a penny on advertising. And this is difficult to track. A perfect example, though not political in nature, concerns false rumours spreading on WhatsApp groups in India. Mobs have lynched at least 25 people suspected of trying to kidnap children, all because of misinformation being spread on messaging channels.

Online literacy is an issue. People need to be given the tools to realise when they're being targeted by a political party or campaign. Google, Facebook and others have committed to literacy programmes, as well as working with fact checkers to establish the veracity of claims made on their platforms. But Google still doesn't want to be the arbiter of truth, and Facebook still denies it's a media company.

But these platforms haven't been shy in signing up to well meaning, but wishy washy, non-legally binding codes. Take the European Commission's code of practice on disinformation. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are all onboard. They have promised to support independent efforts to track disinformation and to understand its impact; to encourage research into misinformation and political ads; to reduce revenues of the purveyors of misinformation and "ensure transparency about political and issue-based advertising, also with a view to enabling users to understand why they have been targeted by a given advertisement".

This is fine if we're happy to outsource regulation to big corporations who have specialised in turning data into cash. But maybe stronger safeguards are needed. In the US, there's the honest ads act, which would make online political advertising subject to the same rules of disclosure as political ads in traditional media. Any platform with over 50 million monthly users would have to monitor political ads, and police any advertiser spending over $500 on a political candidate or cause. In the UK, a Select Committee report on fake news called for misinformation to be defined in legislation, and for platforms to be made legally liable for illegal content they host. That's more like it.

But here's a radical thought: maybe political ads should be banned altogether from online platforms. The murky supply chain for digital advertising and the lack of transparency around the use of personal data for targeted advertising both mean that online advertising - while it's still advertising - is fundamentally different from other types of communications.

These messages exist in a personalised web experience curated to drive stickiness for each individual. That means they exist in an echo chamber, and they can be altered to suit the personality and preferences of individual users. Messages in these ecosystems can be chopped and changed, unlike messages that exist in a greater social sphere. As such, they are poorly suited to political campaigns - that is, if you believe political campaigning should be standardised across society and not customised for different regions and demographics. Maybe big messages of social importance shouldn't be divisible in this way.

Sunday Indo Business

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