Once upon a time a brand-new piece of technology appeared on the scene. One that would allow politicians to conceivably reach into every house in the nation, one with few rules on advertising or what could legally be said (this was a time before fact checkers). It was soon decided that this technology was too dangerous and the concept of political ads was outlawed in favour of public campaigning and grassroots activism.
I am of course talking about television. We have put in place many rules about advertising on TV and Radio, when, where, how, and to whom. We decided as a society that young minds were vulnerable and needed to be protected from predatory adverts and that society as a whole should not be subject to endless unverified claims (about products or politicians). We even created regulators like Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority.
We believed the politics belonged on the doorstep not behind a TV camera and that your success should be based on how many people you can convince to knock on doors in support of your ideas rather than how many adverts you can pay for. Election campaigns were still to be won and lost on the doorstep or the floor of the House of Commons, not the editing room of a TV studio. So imagine my surprise when a significantly more dangerous, less traceable, and much cheaper form of advertising was made available to political parties and done so with no regulatory oversight. It’s been fairly obvious to me at least, that this kind of advertising should be banned in the same way we banned political adverts on television.
In the process of writing my book, Brexit: The Establishment Civil War, I become very concerned about dark ads and political advertising online to the point where I suggested a ban on all advertising of political messages on social media. At the time this was a small part of the conclusions I drew in my final chapters, but since then I have come to believe that this is the only way forward.
The Leave campaign paid for 1 billion micro-targeted ad impressions, do you really believe that this had no effect in such a tight and fraught campaign? If it was worthless then why has this trend only accelerated since the Brexit vote? The Leave campaign spent £7 million in 2016, but in the 2019 election, Boris’s Conservatives spent a cool £17 million – the cost of political campaigns had more than doubled in less than four years.
So why have politicians failed to do anything about this? One of the biggest problems with the rapid expansion of social media into every aspect of our lives has been the lack of time to reflect upon what exactly we have agreed to. The pace of change has been far too rapid for our creaking political system to deal with, it took several years after the Brexit vote for MPs to compile a report via the DCMS committee on how technology and social media had affected the Brexit vote. This is understandable given the age of our politicians, they lack much understanding of the digital world and perhaps even fail to grasp the complexity of the issue or the power of this technology. It’s one of the issues with our aging system and politicians.
However, we have now had considerable time to reflect upon the way in which social media is and has been exploited to disrupt and influence our politics. In a normal system, the government would be attempting to understand and regulate the impact of something so monstrous and huge upon our society and our democracy. Yet, it is close to six years since the Brexit campaign began and we have still failed to do anything about this. This is a gross abdication of responsibility on the part of our politicians. The only logical conclusion I can draw here is that they feel that they can benefit from exploiting the power of this technology. Either they completely fail to understand the power and disruption caused by this technology or they believe they can exploit it. Either way they are failing in their role as representative of the people and are unfit to rule. The Greek playwright Sophocles famously said, “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse”. Social media is too invasive in our lives to escape any negative effects.