All I Want for the UK’s General Election This Year
Election season has just erupted in the U.K. with all the shock and surprise of finding that Christmas has been rescheduled from its normal position in the annual cycle to the day after tomorrow. It feels really weird and sort-of-impossible, but Santa Claus has made it very clear that you’ve absolutely and definitely still got to buy the presents, erect the tree and cook the Turkey, so you’d better shut up and start unpacking the tinsel, stat.
As for me, well, all I want from this strange Christmas is a gift that only the magic elves at Facebook and Google can craft. In the spirit of Santa’s magical sleigh, though, this is a gift that many, many children around the world should be able to benefit from in many further Christmases (elections) to come.
What I want is this: I want Facebook and Google to show seasonal goodwill by voluntarily publishing data on the political adverts that are purchased on their platform and shown to users in the U.K. in the next six weeks.
To be more specific, I want:
A copy of each unique advert (e.g image/text/video)
Data on who this advert was targeted at (e.g everyone/only women/only people in London)
Data on how many people have been shown each advert
Information about who the buyer was
Knowing how much the adverts cost would be nice, too, but that’s actually much less important than the data above. I also don’t care if your data doesn’t cover every political advert: I get that natural language processing has limits. Not a problem, this is a rush job at a strange time.
Why should Google and Facebook step up and do this? Well, firstly because I think they are largely staffed by decent, patriotic people who believe passionately in protecting their countries and their democracies from foreign powers. This is a relatively low effort, zero censorship way of helping to reduce the chance that people who would quite like to undermine our nations and our democracies are not trying to ensure that we vote against our own interests, and for theirs instead.
Second, I think Google and Facebook should do this because they are companies that want to connect the world, not divide it. By showing which adverts are being shown to which parts of the electorate they can help expose situations in which parties and candidates are telling one group of people one thing, and another group of people the exact opposite. It may also help expose forms of campaigning based on hate that are actually outside the law, especially in a country like the U.K.
Lastly, Facebook and Google should do this because it is easier and less controversial than the fake news problem they are struggling to address. I’m not asking them to block anything or down-weight anything, or categorize or endorse data in any way. And I’m also not asking for a lot of design and engineering: I just want a raw dump of the data, which other people can prettify and make accessible. In a field full of tough options, this one’s actually pretty easy.
So what do you say, Santa? This is all I want for Christmas this year.