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General election 2019: Ads are 'indecent, dishonest and untruthful'

A campaign group is calling for fact-checking of political advertising to be a legal requirement after what it describes as a "fake news and disinformation general election".

The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising says at least 31 campaigns from across the party spectrum have been indecent, dishonest or untruthful.

The non-partisan body is made up of advertising professionals.

It says the next government must create a new regulator to oversee the matter.

The organisation also suggests 87% of voters think there needs to be a law to compel political-ad creators to make only truthful claims.

The figure is based on a survey conducted by YouGov on the Coalition's behalf.

'Significant problem'

The Coalition says the largely unregulated world of election ads bears little resemblance to one of the founding principles of retail advertising, namely that ads should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful".

Ads in the UK are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority. Its rules prohibit misleading information and require advertisers to have "documentary evidence" to support their claims.

But political advertising is regulated outside of the ASA. And the electoral law that applies "doesn't require claims in political campaigns to be truthful or factually accurate," according to the House of Commons library.

Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising co-founder Alex Tait says its report is not a comprehensive view of how many incorrect or misleading claims are out there, but does demonstrate there is "a very significant problem".

This is the first general election since several of the tech giants gave the public access to databases listing the political ads running on their platforms.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google and Snapchat all share such data, although there is a lag between when a campaign begins and when it is documented.

At least £2m has been spent on Facebook and Instagram over the last 30 days, and an advertising blitz is expected over the last 48 hours of campaigning.

Contested claims

Many of the ads have not contained misleading claims, but the issue has also been addressed by the non-profit organisation First Draft.

It looked just at every paid-for Facebook ad from the three main UK-wide parties run over the first four days of December:

  • for the Conservatives, it said that 88% (5,952) of the party's most widely promoted ads either featured claims which had been flagged by independent fact-checking organisations including BBC Reality Check as not correct or not entirely correct. The figure includes instances of the same claims being made across multiple posts. One example was that Labour would spend £1.2 trillion at a cost of £2,400 to every household, which was contained within 4,028 ads. Those sums are significantly higher than others' analysis of Labour's plans
  • for the Lib Dems, it said hundreds of potentially misleading ads had featured identical unlabelled graphs, with no indication of the source data, to claim it was the only party that could beat either Labour, the Conservatives or the SNP "in seats like yours"
  • for Labour, it said that it could not find any misleading claims in ads run over the period. However, it noted that the party's supporters were more likely to share unpaid-for electioneering posts than those of its rivals. It said one of these contained leader Jeremy Corbyn's disputed claim that a Tory-negotiated trade deal with the US could cost the NHS up to £500m a week by driving up the cost of medicines

Concerns are not limited to online content.

In particular, one expert has flagged the distribution of political campaign materials designed to look like local newspapers.

Dr Claire Hardaker says although this is a tried-and-tested technique, it can have a damaging effect on democracy.

"Local papers are seen as more honest, impartial, talking to me specifically," explained the Lancaster University academic, who researches deceptive and manipulative language.

"They are an objective voice who care about you. When political parties borrow this voice, people interpret what they're saying in a different way, seeing them as more credible."

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