Does targeted political advertising present a threat to democracy?

About the author

Catherine Owen-Williams prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy

Image by memyselfaneye from Pixabay
Image by memyselfaneye from Pixabay

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain said that. Or did he?

How ironic that such a quote should be misattributed.

Catherine Owen-Williams

It’s worrying that while this metaphor would have been understood when mass communication was in its infancy, and relatively slow, the concept is now physically true. A falsehood can reach millions at the push of a button.

Fake news is all around us.

At the beginning of the HBO documentary, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News[i], filmmaker Andrew Rossi asks Jack Burkman, a ‘Political Operative’, this question: “As someone working in politics in DC, what do you think about fake news?”

His reply: “I would use fake news as a weapon because it is out there. The Germans used chemical weapons. The British used chemical weapons. What are you going to do?”

According to Sue Halpern in The Problem of Political Advertising on Social Media[ii], Facebook refused to remove an ad falsely accusing former US Vice-President Joe Biden of offering a bribe to Ukrainian officials to drop a case against his son, Hunter. The advert included a video clip edited to make it look like Biden openly confesses to the scheme.

Kate Harbath, Facebook’s public-policy director, said: “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.

“Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers.”

Positioning themselves as platforms not publishers has allowed social media companies to avoid the regulation that holds other disseminators of news to account.

According to David M. J. Lazer et al. in The Science of Fake News[iii]: “Journalistic norms of objectivity and balance arose as a backlash among journalists against the widespread use of propaganda in World War I (particularly their own role in propagating it) and the rise of corporate public relations in the 1920s. The internet has lowered the cost of entry to new competitors — many of which have rejected those norms — and undermined the business models of traditional news sources that had enjoyed high levels of public trust and credibility.”

Who says what, to whom, and when is highly significant when it comes to effective persuasion. Researchers Alexander Coppock et al[iv] conclude: “One commonly offered explanation for these small effects is heterogeneity: Persuasion may only work well in specific circumstances.”

People are more inclined towards accepting a message which chimes with what they already feel is the case. It is harder to dissuade someone from something they have come to believe than to convince them in the beginning. People are apparently more inclined to remember the information and how they felt about it rather than how they discovered it.  Once the genie is out of the bottle it’s reluctant to be pushed back in.

Brian McNair, in An Introduction to Political Communication[v], talks of the failure to educate voters sufficiently so that they can take part in rational debate. If people understood our political systems more clearly, perhaps they would not be so susceptible to fake news.

Public Relations is looked upon by many as the art of persuasion. Some experts in the field disagree. Shirley Harrison, in her book Public Relations: An Introduction[vi], says this is not the case. Professor James Grunig tells practitioners to aim for “two-way symmetrical … communication”.[vii] On the other hand, Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, in their book PR – A Persuasive Industry, state[viii]: “Public relations is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives.”

Segmentation is not new. Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley, in their book The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit[ix], explain how audiences can be analysed to better target the message. The advent of the internet, social media and algorithms has allowed targeting to become a more exact science. Algorithms allow us to serve messages to those consumers who are more likely to have an interest in our product though the analysis of many factors and preferences.

As the focus has increasingly turned towards the importance of the receiver of the message, psychology has been used to work out how best to persuade audiences to behave in the way you wish them to do.

According to Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen[x], recipients weigh up different influences and so changing one of these factors could be the key.

Leon Festinger[xi] developed the theory of cogitative dissonance. When two beliefs exist then people seek a resolution to avoid the discomfort.

Perhaps here is where we find the power and danger of targeted political advertising in the social media world. If you can find the right persuadable people and resolve this distress with a message that provides a simple solution to complex issues, then you can make an impact.

When you are using these tactics to put your advert for sofas in front of someone who has been looking for tips on redesigning their living room, that’s a bit creepy. When you use it to show someone political messages that are based on misinformation, that’s another matter. When a party-political broadcast comes on to your TV it’s there for all to see. Online targeted adverts are hidden, and this goes against the concept of transparency that underpins a healthy democracy.

When does persuasion tip into propaganda? It’s a dirty word with which PR does not wish to be associated.

When the pressure is on to get results, who will use any means to win?

Writing in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Alan Blinder, tell of a stealth effort to impact a senatorial election which sought to discourage Republicans from voting[xii]. The “Dry Alabama” Facebook page, which appeared to be the work of Baptist teetotallers who were supporting Roy Moore, was the work of progressive Democrats who thought calls for a state-wide alcohol ban would discourage moderate, business-oriented Republicans from voting for their candidate.

Veteran political activist, writer and consultant, Matt Osborne, who worked on the campaign, said he hoped such tactics would be outlawed. He believes that when the margins are analysed, only a small percentage of voters who saw the messages needed to be persuaded to change their behaviour for the election result to be changed. These tactics are used by opponents, he said, and while they are not prevented from doing so, you have to use them too: “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

There was considerable concern about the impact of targeted messaging after the Brexit referendum of 2016. In an article by Jamie Doward, Carole Cadwalladr and Alice Gibbs[xiii], Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Independent Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely.

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish,” added Dr Moores.

Increasingly, evaluation methods allow our work to be assessed in numbers. Clients will want to know that output has had an outcome. If you can find a way to reach the receptive audiences, then why wouldn’t you use it?

Evaluation in PR has been problematic. Even social media, where engagement can be measured, is not simply quantified as, for example, not every Tweet is seen by every follower and how do you define engagement? However, when you can send a cleverly designed message that reaches an audience that is seeking to be persuaded, and tip them towards believing what they already show signs of thinking, there is huge potential to effect change.

On the other hand, evaluation methods could be used to demonstrate these impacts and provide evidence of why it is important to not distort the truth in an effort to please a political client.

There’s a matter of ethics. If someone buys the wrong sofa, that’s one thing. If someone votes for a party based on false information, that’s another. What if those people were reached through underhand means and did not know that they were being targeted or who was behind it?

Political decisions based on propaganda can ruin lives, not just living rooms. If enough people lose faith in the existence of truth and facts, then we are in a dangerous position where democracy could be put at risk.

You would think, with such high stakes, political promotion would face more restrictions than the advertising of products. This is not the case.

Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Authority Guy Parker says political advertising in the UK must be regulated[xiv]. The Electoral Commission stated, following the 2019 General Election, that misleading campaigns ‘undermine trust’. It was political parties’ unwillingness to agree to such regulation that resulted in the ASA withdrawing from a process to regulate this advertising in the 1990s.

PR has its own codes of ethics. The Code of Conduct for members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) includes ‘Checking the reliability and accuracy of information before dissemination’.[xv]

In a world where political advertising is as yet effectively regulated to ensure that the content is verifiable, it is up to public relations professionals to make sure that we adhere to the code of ethics. Persuasion needs to be based on truth. Regarding data, if a third party is offering the service of finding the right audience for your messages, request details about how that data was obtained. Provide sources for the facts, figures or research that is designed to have an impact on behaviour as it could have a long-term impact on us all. Persuade with caution for history may look back on what has been done and call it propaganda.

Who did say those words about the speed of a lie? It was most likely based not on a comment by Mark Twain but by something written by satirist Jonathan Swift[xvi]. An apt name in this context. He would not be short of material for his political writing now.


[i] After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News

[ii] The Problem of Political Advertising on Social Media, Sue Halpern, The New Yorker Journal, 24 October 2019,

[iii] The Science of Fake News, David M. J. Lazer et al, Science:

[iv] ‘The small effects of political advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments’, by Alexander Coppock et al, Science Advances:

[v] An Introduction to Political Communication, Brian McNair, Fifth edition.

[vi] Public Relations: An Introduction, Shirley Harrison

[vii] James E. Grunig, Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation:

[viii] PR – A Persuasive Industry, Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy:

[ix] The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley:

[x] Predicting and Changing Behavior: The Reasoned Action Approach, Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen:

[xi] Leon Festinger, Cognitive Dissonance:

[xii] Scott Shane and Alan Blinder, Democrats Faked Online Push to Outlaw Alcohol in Alabama Race, New York Times:

[xiii] Watchdog to launch inquiry into misuse of data in politics, The Guardian, Jamie Doward, Carole Cadwalladr and Alice Gibbs:

[xiv] British political advertising must be regulated. How to do it is a harder question, Guy Parker, The Guardian:

[xv] CIPR Code of Conduct:

[xvi] That Wasn’t Mark Twain: How a Misquotation Is Born, Niraj Chokshi, New York Times: