Transparency for political advertising – will it all end in tears?

(Public Domain)

Against the backdrop of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, which convened this week in Dublin, the government has approved a proposal to Regulate Transparency of Online Political Advertising. The legislation aims to increase transparency around paid advertising and impede the electoral process from being captured by a narrow range of interests that align themselves with harmful content and electoral interference. The proposed regulation, which is essentially a stopgap until a Statutory Electoral Commission is established to oversee a wider reform of the electoral process.

It’s old hat by now that the electoral process has proven to be especially vulnerable to certain interest groups’ desire to wedge their way into social platforms and manipulate the spread potentially harmful information. Platforms themselves are divided on how they manage political content; Facebook has decided to take an entirely hands off approach, while Twitter has announced a ban on all political advertising.

Both positions have their detractors – the unequivocal refusal to regulate and thus tacitly condoning the spread of contentious content, versus the decision to become the arbiter of political content in your feed. Following the Twitter ban, the Taoiseach voiced his reservations regarding the disabling of a significant channel for political representatives to reach voters. He also expressed his concern that such a ban could act as a contagion for a ban on political advertising across all media, including billboards and newspapers.  

While such a view has more than a whiff of scaremongering, it reflects the inherent tension in regulating political content online. Apart from a consensus that ‘something must be done’ there is very little agreement on where to draw the line, nor a sense of how easy it will be to police once drawn. Watch this space.