Custom Advertizing in Politics – Good, Bad or Ugly?

Advertizing in politics is now under the microscope. Especially after Facebook was able to create custom ads that only the individual viewer could see, targeted to that viewer’s likes and dislikes; these ads were mostly of a negative nature and were walled off from public scrutiny and criticism. It had to come to this before political advertizing—the only tool for broadcasting a politician’s platform without requiring his physical presence—had to be revisited. Technology had finally made political advertizing a villain.

Politicians have always had to advertize themselves, whether it was by making spectacles of themselves in parliament, or by slipping in platform speeches totally unrelated to the charity event or school opening they were presiding at as chief guest, or while being interviewed on radio or TV, or when appearing at political rallies and public debates. Social media’s coming of age was a boon to politicians, who could now employ an army of volunteers to clog the cyberwaves with promotional messages, subtle or otherwise. When traditional platform pitches began to pale, attack ads on the opposition gained currency—the latter was far more entertaining, for everyone liked  a good punch up. So, why not attack ads on social media as well? And volunteers were not required either; a lone operator with an army of cell phones strung together to a central server could blast messages at random to further clog the cyberwaves and distort public perceptions. And then we arrived at our present pass: custom messaging: i.e. Facebook’s ads customized by individual member profile, fed in steady doses, guaranteed to wear down the hardiest resistors and reduce them to captive voters for the side that paid the most for this form of stealth advertizing. The red flag finally had to go up!

The argument advanced for the red flag is that this customized advertizing is not seen by everyone. That is, in the old days, political advertizing—even attack ads on radio, newspaper or TV—was seen by supporters of all political parties alike, at the same time and in its unaltered content. There would even be disclaimers such as “ this ad is being brought to you by XYZ Party of Canada,” similar to those downers on cigarette cartons: “Smoking Kills.” The latest custom ads on social media are being disarmingly brought to you by a “friend” whom you once “friended” on Facebook, someone insidiously close, someone who has earned your trust. The ad is for your eyes only. The opposition, unable to see what you are receiving, is unable to counter. The power to sway voters now lies in the writers of these ads, in the power of the algorithm to segregate voters based on personal profile information, and in the depth of each political party’s financial pockets. The sheep…aka the voters…merely respond. The power of the people is being usurped by writers, machines and money.

New rules are going to be applied, they say, especially as we have our own provincial and federal elections coming up. I wonder how far these rules will go and how many arguments will be advanced for not muzzling political advertizing: freedom of expression, freedom of the internet, tech company shareholder concerns, unnecessary impediments being placed on the march of technology and artificial intelligence, the demonizing of Russia, the impeding of economies of developing countries (where many of the cell phones farms reside, blasting messages that affect other countries). Some rules will eventually be put in place, but they will be token gestures to tamp down public uproar. Then we will get back to the old game, and custom advertizing will become embedded as the new normal.

The way forward, in my opinion—custom brainwashing ads notwithstanding—is not to rely on governments to subsidize our decision making. The individual voter needs to develop an enquiring mind about what is happening in the world, check out many sources of information, not just Facebook, weed out fake news sites whose artifice becomes apparent quickly, disbelieve the rhetoric and promises of politicians (especially before an election), arrive at one’s own conclusions, and get out and vote with conscience.

Social media ads serve as good theatre, but that’s where they must remain. For example, I am a great fan of Shakespeare. However, despite all the comedies and tragedies of the Bard that I have seen and enjoyed, I will never vote for the return of strong-man (i.e. monarchist or dictatorial) regimes to replace democracies. Henry V, Richard III and King Lear will remain on the stage for me, never ever to be voted a return to real life in modern society.

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