Niamh: The Dublin Bay South by-election showed that


With the recent Dublin Bay South by-election, another public vote took place without any regulations regarding online advertising.

It has been years since issues were first raised about the lack of oversight of online political advertising and how broadcast bans, moratoria and spending limits do not apply online.

Although the proposed bills aim to cover political advertising, so far little has been done and what is proposed may not be enough.

And although the government lingered on the issues already raised, this election saw a change in online election campaigns that must also be taken into account: the rise of video ads.

In the countryside

There were 452 ads for the by-election on Facebook from June 1 to election day on July 8, according to Facebook’s ad library. A total of 20 funders advertised on 24 Facebook pages.

Eight of the 15 candidates had advertising campaigns on the platform.

In addition to Facebook, Labor’s Ivana Bacik ran 15 ads on Google during the campaign each costing less than € 50, and Sinn Féin published two: one for less than € 50 and another between € 50 and € 500, all two on voter registration.

Candidates only need to report their expenses to the electoral regulator, the Civil Service Standards Commission (SIPO), if a payment is greater than € 130. Most online advertisements cost less than that.

The Labor Party spent the most on a single advertising campaign: between € 600 and € 699. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin spent between € 500 and € 599 on their ads.

Source: Facebook ad library data

Along with party and candidate spending, thematic ads ran across Ireland alongside the election campaign, which addressed political issues for candidates.

Several third-party advertising campaigns have promoted positions on abortion rights, environmental issues, housing and homelessness.

It is not known to what extent thematic ads shape political discourse during campaigns, but they have the potential to bring issues to the fore during elections.

Most of the ad campaigns ran on both Instagram and Facebook (424), while 27 were placed only on Facebook and only one campaign was placed only on Instagram.

The shift to including Instagram in campaigns was clear in the 2020 general election. From the candidates, it demands better visual ads. The Dublin Bay South by-election saw campaigns increase the quality of production.

New campaigns

While some parties have turned to more traditional methods of promoting their candidates, with billboards and roadside signs, others like Ivana Bacik of Labor and Brigid Purcell of People Before Profit have also done so. short video ads.

They were high quality, elegantly shot and professionally edited, with upbeat soundtracks and punchy graphics.

Only one candidate seems to have had a range of people provide campaign content, including a digital campaign manager, video producer, artist and five communications people.

Election regulation in Ireland is primarily focused on transparency, impartiality and fairness between candidates.

Advertising for political purposes is prohibited on Irish television and radio.

This is because it has always had a higher barrier to entry in terms of production and distribution costs, potentially excluding applicants with shallow pockets.

The regulations were designed to prevent the electorate from obtaining information from only a small number of political parties that could afford to advertise. There were also concerns over whether eye-catching videos would diminish the quality of the political debate.

These are the same concerns we face today when it comes to online political advertising. However, nowadays, in the absence of any reform, political videos can be broadcast on social media and fall outside the purview of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The risk to the news environment during elections remains the same: a few well-endowed political actors can overwhelm the online environment with catchy content.

The advantage typically among candidates always lies in those who are established and supported by parties, who are more likely to be able to secure the resources (voluntary or otherwise) to make impactful videos – rather than new candidates. independent.

But it’s not just the candidates and the parties. A dishonest actor with the right team could produce multiple high-impact media across multiple campaigns, support astroturf, set political agendas, frame political issues, undermine candidates, and disrupt political discourse without having to pay for a platform. .

The proposed electoral regulations should be designed to level the playing field for everyone, but this is not the case.

Neither the Electoral Reform Bill, the Digital Services Act, nor the Online Social Media Regulation Bill take a holistic approach to new political campaigning practices.

They tend to be rooted in the analog understanding of political advertising which focuses only on buyers, platforms, and recipients, and ignores the complexity of how political and election campaigns are conducted at the time. era of hybrid media.

To ban or not to ban?

So what are the options? One would be to allow video advertising in all media.

A 2009 Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report, written by Professor Kevin Rafter of Dublin City University, suggested that it was helpful to remove the broadcast ban. This could strengthen voter engagement and be possible to impose certain regulatory limits to ensure a level playing field.

The Digital News Report Ireland 2020, which surveys news consumers in Ireland, suggested the public may be open to it, with 47% saying political parties should be allowed to advertise on TV .

Or, we could ban video advertising on social media. According to the report, 53% of respondents believe that political parties should be banned from advertising online. However, this is unlikely.

The Electoral Reform Bill does not distinguish and define online political advertising as “any form of communication in digital format… during an election period… for which payment is made on the online platform”.

High-value video advertising is classified in the same category as other media without taking into account the difference in production costs.

If we allow video election advertisements on television or online, questions remain as to what we should know about them to ensure fairness and transparency in the electoral process.

Reforms must be seen in the context of a ban on wealth from manipulating the media environment. We need to understand all the resources and services required to produce online advertising campaigns.

At the moment, election and political advertising online is largely unregulated and proposals to remedy the situation are limited.

The proposed legislation does not take into account the funding of new communication practices and is already lagging behind in practice.

Given that the pace of reforms to date has been slow given the gravity of the situation, meaningful regulations are unlikely to be in place for the next by-election, general election or referendum.

Likely to come, there are more and more changes in the form, style and distribution of election advertising.

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