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Facebook and politics; Brexit ads; Dickens — an apology

28 Oct 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Facebook and politics; Brexit ads; Dickens — an apology

Despite the half-truths, misinformation and lies, Zuckerberg is right to say that banning political ads on Facebook would be anti-democratic, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: Missing the point of Brexit ads, and Charles Dickens goes rogue with BT

With a UK election looking imminent and the US election cycle well under way, the bean counters at Facebook are no doubt high-fiving each other and going ‘Ker-ching’ as the money rolls in — $1m a week from the Trump campaign alone, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile Mark Zuckerberg sits on the naughty step in Washington and takes a beating from Congress about political ads (and a few other things too). Here is a short video of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holding his feet to the fire on political ads — scroll down to the Reuters tweet. Here’s a NYT summary of the inquisition.

For a nano-second I almost felt sorry for him.

At issue is the question of whether Facebook should both accept political ads, and then apply some sort of fact-checking process to them in the same way that it is now being forced to do in other areas of content.

But Zuckerberg is holding firm. Yes to political advertising. No to fact checking them, while at the same time attempting to bring some transparency to their provenance through its Ad Library unit, preventing other countries from messing in domestic politics and preventing ads that seek to suppress voting.

And, despite the half-truths, misinformation and lies that pour over voters like a torrent of filth, he is right. Banning political ads on Facebook would be anti-democratic. It would act as a barrier to entry for nascent, single-issue or local political forces — unless they could afford other media, notably TV in the US (which by definition, since they are new, they couldn’t) — and it would protect incumbents or established political vehicles.

As for Facebook fact-checking political ads, which some in Congress seem to want, how would that work? One person’s lie is another’s truth. The fact checkers, even if you bought the half-baked notion that they were in some way independent, would be both judge and jury. Who, for example, would select and monitor the activities of these fact-checkers?

Or, to put it another way, it would give Facebook even more power over debate and social discourse than it already has, which everyone seems to agree is too much anyway.

Hmm, that would be the law of unintended consequences. It was Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others, and the right to advertise is a fundamental plank of the democratic process, however unpalatable that may sound.

That Brexit campaign: Lord Obvious reports

The National Audit Office, bless them, performs many useful functions as the watchdog casting a sharp eye over public spending.

Last week it turned its focus on the Get Ready for Brexit campaign and pronounced it a waste largely, it seems in the view of the NAO, because it was launched so close to the proposed (as I write) leaving date of October 31.

Hello, Lord Obvious.

Of course it’s been a bleeding waste of money. Anyone could have told Michael Gove that.

But that is entirely to miss the point. The campaign wasn’t to actually help traders prepare for an orderly/disorderly exit, but merely to be seen to do so (my emphasis).

It was designed to give Gove and his team a nice warm feeling, as well as shore up the Brexiteer base.

And this, with some notable exceptions, is the way with much government advertising. I once asked a senior executive at the-then COI media buying agency why I had seen a social worker recruitment ad run during News at Ten.

“That seems like a waste of money,” I said.

“Of course it is,” they replied. “It’s not aimed at social workers. It was to make the minister look good in front of their Cabinet colleagues.”

Dickens goes rogue with BT

Fans of Charles Dickens will no doubt be aghast at the way BT has co-opted the opening lines of a Tale of Two Cities for its latest corporate splurge.

In the ad, which you can see here, a young girl walks to school reciting the lines.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us.”

In the background, Stormzy’s church-like Blinded by Your Grace soars.

Dickens’ words are certainly applicable to fractured Britain today. There will be those who think we are at the dawn of a new era; there will be others who think the darkness is about to descend.

So WTF is going on? BT is surely not getting political here. No, it’s telling us, as the end frame shows, that it is shaping the future by providing coding lessons to 5m kids.

‘The Future is Ours to Take,” it says. (And if that sounds like a rip-off of the Orange ‘The future’s bright’ line, I agree.)

That certainly was new news to me. BT has Purpose with a capital P. Oh dear.

There will be those who would be more kindly disposed to BT if, to take two examples, it a) stopped spaffing money up the wall on football rights in a pointless attempt to reinvent itself as an entertainment company; and b) stopped dragging its feet on building a proper full-fibre broadband infrastructure via its Openreach subsidiary.

Imagine you live in rural UK, denied a proper, modern internet service. You’d be pretty cheesed off to see this ad telling you the future’s yours to take if you can’t even get a reliable or fast signal.

It’s tempting therefore to repurpose Dickens.

“It was the age of vacuousness. It was an age without meaning. It was the epoch of corporate crap. It was the dawn of pointless purpose. It’s just an ad etc etc….”.

(Note to the Dickens estate: apologies.)

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01 Jul 2020 

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