IPA condemns Facebook's refusal to ban or fact-check micro-targeted political ads

Google and Twitter have both made moves to stem lies in political advertising.

Facebook: plans to give users access to 'transparency features'
Facebook: plans to give users access to 'transparency features'

The IPA has expressed its disappointment at Facebook’s decision not to ban political ads that use micro-targeting and spurious claims to sway voter opinion – a practice that the industry body says is "open to abuse and has been demonstrably abused in the recent past".

The retort comes as Facebook doubled down on its refusal to restrict untruthful or deceitful political ads and micro-targeting. The platform said it had decided not to tackle how ads target specific groups of people – some of which may be especially vulnerable, credulous or susceptible to misinformation. Neither will Facebook fact-check these ads.

The IPA has condemned the move, arguing that "advertising technology designed for the promotion of products and services has been weaponised for political messaging".

Nigel Gwilliam, the IPA’s director of media affairs, said: "In a democracy, political ideas need to be aired and debated in the public square. Micro-targeting has the potential to subvert this, especially when combined with the absence of fact-checking or any other message regulation."

The Advertising Standards Authority’s codes do not cover political advertising in the UK and the IPA said the lack of regulation was a "clear and present threat to politics in democracies".

"While we support regulation of political messaging, we do not believe this will be introduced in the foreseeable future," Gwilliam added. "As such, we have made and continue to make two conjoined calls."

The IPA is calling for transparency in online political ads as the "next best thing to regulation" and wants a "publicly accessible, platform-neutral, machine-readable register of all political ads and ad data online". It is also calling for a ban on micro-targeted political ads online.

"If you don’t limit the granularity of targeting, especially in a world of growing automation/AI, you risk a sheer volume of different messages overwhelming any transparency measure like the proposed register," Gwilliam explained.

Facebook said yesterday (Thursday) that rather than tackle the issue head on, it would instead give users access to so-called "transparency features" that allow them to limit the number of political ads they see. These will be activated over the coming months.

In spite of attestations by Facebook that this stance reflects its belief in free speech and political debate, it is accused by critics of being commercially minded and damaging to democracy.

Meanwhile, the social media behemoth is increasingly at odds with the position of other digital giants. In November, Google said it would limit political ad-targeting to broader demographic groups based on criteria such as gender, age and post code (a move welcomed by the IPA), while Twitter banned political ads from its platform outright in October.

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