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Twitter bans all political ads

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Twitter has announced that it will ban all political ads. The move comes in advance of the next UK General Election, which is set to be held on 12 December.

Why has Twitter banned political ads?

In a series of tweets, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said:

"A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money."

He added:

"While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions."

He also said that the Twitter political ads decision wasn't about free expression. Rather it was about paying for reach:

"And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today's democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It's worth stepping back in order to address."

Twitter bans political ads. Is this good news?

The reaction to the announcement has been mixed with people on one side of the debate seeing this as a win for democratic and fair process, and others seeing it as an attempt to silence certain politicians. However, some could argue that the people most upset about the decision are those who have allegedly used social media to carry out extensive misinformation campaigns.

The UK data protection regulator (the ICO), will no doubt be happy with the move as it has serious concerns about how data is being used for political purposes. In fact, in 2017 it launched a formal investigation into this very topic. The investigation is one of the largest of its kind and is ongoing.

Is social media influencing our votes?

The evidence certainly seems to point that way. The Electoral Commission, the ICO, A Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee and The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising have all raised concerns about microtargeting specific voters profiled using unknown data.

Indeed, according to an ICO report:

"Citizens can only make truly informed choices about who to vote for if they are sure that those decisions have not been unduly influenced.

"The invisible, 'behind the scenes' use of personal data to target political messages to individuals must be transparent and lawful if we are to preserve the integrity of our election process.

"We may never know whether individuals were unknowingly influenced to vote a certain way in either the UK EU referendum or the in US election campaigns. But we do know that personal privacy rights have been compromised by a number of players and that the digital electoral ecosystem needs reform."

What will happen next?

It is yet to be seen if Facebook - which has been widely criticised for helping to spread political misinformation - will also step up to the mark. Certainly, Facebook executives have robustly defended their policy of not fact-checking political ads. But, despite Zuckerberg's uncompromising stance on this matter, the fact that Twitter has decided not to permit political advertising will put additional pressure on the social media giant.

Staying safe on social media

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted what can happen when we share our data online. In this case, a researcher garnered details on the likes and habits of Facebook users (without their consent) via a personality quiz app called 'This is Your Digital Life'. Cambridge Analytica then used this data to target users with political messaging. Facebook has since been fined £500,000 by the ICO for this data privacy violation (although Facebook has refused to accept liability).

But, despite the media attention this case received - and the possible impact on our democracy- it seems that plenty of us are still willing to hand over our information without thinking about the consequences.

It is absolutely right that we are demanding that social media organisations look after our data with respect. But it is also crucial that we apply the same standards to our own behaviour if we want to stay safe.

For example, when using technology, we must be conscious of the data we are sharing, and how it can be used. On social media, this includes things like:

  • Not accepting friend requests from people you don't know
  • Being careful about what you share online
  • Removing location data from your posts
  • Using a different password for all your accounts
  • Using two-factor authentication
  • Checking the privacy settings of all your accounts/apps/games etc.
  • Not downloading suspicious apps
  • Thinking twice before clicking on any links
  • Reading the T&Cs of any games or apps you want to use
  • Being aware of common phishing techniques and keeping an eye out for fraudsters who attempt to gather additional personal information
  • Not accepting any 'news' at face value.

Today, social media is part of everyday life. So we would never suggest that you stop using it if you don't want to. In fact, at Hayes Connor, we believe that raising awareness of cybersecurity issues will help to protect ourselves as individuals. And you can get more advice on how to keep your data safe, from us on Twitter and Facebook. But it is vital to follow some simple steps to stay safe.