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Pol ads on Facebook creating 'inequalities': Study

FILE PHOTO: Facebook logo is reflected in glasses in this picture illustration taken April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/Illustration/File Photo

As Facebook is increasingly being used by political parties to reach out to the voters, a study has found that such advertising on the social networking site is creating new types of inequalities for campaigners.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK found that regulators must find a way of monitoring and addressing the way political advertising on Facebook creates such inequalities.

The online platform is increasingly used during elections, but it is impossible to track the impact of political advertising and how politicians are using this tool.

The study, published in the journal Political Quarterly, suggests regulation must also take into account how Facebook algorithms mean the same advertising spend has different results.

Researchers say any new regulations must show more understanding of the differences in online campaigning, and do more to capture the true spend on political adverts on Facebook.

Traditional campaigning regulations are based on the theory that spending by each political party leads to a similar result -- for example if political parties spent the same amount on leaflets the literature would reach a similar number of people.

The researchers, including those from the University of Sheffield in the UK, found this cannot apply to Facebook advertising, where the impact is dependent on the audience the advertiser wants to reach.

This means different spend will have different results.

Adverts in a marginal constituency will be more expensive, as will adverts that are directed at an audience that is in high demand from advertisers, researchers said.

"As digital political campaigning grows it is now increasingly difficult for existing regulators to capture the true extent of what is happening online, let alone whether these practices violate democratic norms," said Katharine Dommett, from the University of Sheffield.

"The unreliability of existing data on the use of Facebook needs to be acknowledged by regulators if campaigning spending is to be effectively interpreted and understood," Dommett said.

"The lack of clear information should concern anyone responsible for overseeing the conduct of modern campaigns," she said.

Although Facebook has introduced some new transparency measures, nobody can fully monitor both how it is being used by political parties and the inequalities of access they can face, said Sam Power, from the University of Exeter.

"It is also not Facebook's role to regulate elections. We need to recognise these limitations to think about whether and how existing reporting requirements need to change.

"Regulators around the world need to think about how to monitor and respond to spending principles that are creating inequalities in the electoral market place," Power said. 

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