Time has come to legislate all political advertising 365 days a year

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This fall, Twitter and Facebook advertising influence will probably outstrip the combined effect of radio and television.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 1, 2019.

OTTAWA—Twitter received kudos last week for finally announcing the suspension of political advertising during the summer.

The social media feed was late to that party, having been publicly scolded by Democratic Reform Minister Karina Gould for its silence on recent government legislation limiting social media advertising.

Michele Austin, head of government and public policy for Twitter Canada, publicized the decision after initially refusing to comment on new legislation requiring companies to set up registries if they are selling political advertising. Foreign ad placement is also illegal.

Facebook, Google, and Microsoft had already announced their intention to comply.

Twitter only promised to ban advertising until the formal election call, which will happen in September. Surprisingly, Austin said issues-based political advertising would be exempt from the summer ban.

Google has decided not to run ads during the election, while Facebook plans to advertise, with the requisite registry.

Twitter followers will understand the weakness of the Twitter response. The federal election is an opportunity to log in lots of advertising in a confined media space that is particularly attractive to political junkies.

What better way to monetize a social feed that is probably the most direct way to reach so-called vote influencers in an attempt to shape the direction of the election.

Of all social media platforms, Twitter is the one that really draws in those influencers.

From #MAGA to @JustinTrudeau, friends and enemies alike can get political messaging directly from their respective leaders. They can also pollute opponents’ tweets, with retweets that add a negative twist to the original message.

The platform can be a perfect “gotcha” where leaders are exposed for saying one thing and doing another. After the Liberals announced an end to single-use plastic, the prime minister posted a staff meeting photo on Twitter where plastic forks were included in the pizza lunch.

Just last week @CanadaProud offered a $1,000 reward on Twitter to anyone who could snap a photo of the prime minister sipping from a plastic straw.

@CanadaProud was launched following the successful @OntarioProud attacking the Liberals and electing Doug Ford. The founder said the new arm of the organization was launched with the express purpose of defeating Justin Trudeau and electing Andrew Scheer.

Allegedly, the group has nothing to do with the Conservative Party. As a registered third party, it bills itself as a non-partisan, not-for-profit, grassroots organization.

When Jeff Ballingal, a former communications staffer in the Stephen Harper government, launched the organization, the purpose was very clear. “We want to defeat Liberals all over the country.”

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, much has been written about the participation of union Unifor spending on advertising to defeat Andrew Scheer. Another third-party group called @EngageCanada includes board members with close ties to the Liberals and New Democrats. They recently launched a campaign with the express purpose of defeating Andrew Scheer.

Both so-called third-party organizations are working overtime this summer to get their competing messages out.

They have a fine line to walk, as any direct link to a political party running in the campaign could result in the loss of their tax-deductible status.

The onslaught of advertising in traditional and social media is on the uptake because legislation covering political advertising only kicks in when the election is called.

The obvious abuse of third-party advertising needs to be curbed. The easiest way to fix the situation is to ensure that Elections Canada has the power to manage all political, and third-party advertising, whether an election is in the offing or not.

Recent advertising trashing Trudeau even went so far as to use the same actors as the Conservative campaign back in 2015.

Pre-writ advertising does not require naming of the party that paid for any ad. But the blurred lines between political parties and third-party advertisers really need to be re-examined.

What Twitter and Facebook offer are platforms for an easily transmittable message that any follower can flip to friends with little effort and maximum political trending impact.

So with a small investment, a third party can mobilize followers and grow their data base, simply with the flick of a finger on Facebook or Twitter.

Precisely because of the impact of third party players in Ontario, the provincial government has new laws limiting advertising spends even before an election is called.

This fall, Twitter and Facebook advertising influence will probably outstrip the combined effect of radio and television.

The time has come to legislate all political advertising 365 days a year.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.