Editor’s comment: Why dark ads are a bad thing for democracy


- Credit: Archant

Ramzy Alwakeel, editor of the Gazette.

Political parties being able to target voters using unregulated ads that only they can see sounds like something out of 1984. In fact, it’s happening – in Hackney and across the UK.

The Gazette has reviewed all the adverts that were shown to the 200 Facebook users who signed up to Who Targets Me? – and while many are duplicates, it is no less chilling that parties are able to choose who to show ads to based on their age, gender and interests.

If a party makes a claim about its opponents on a billboard, the advert is scrutinised before production by the Electoral Commission. Furthermore, if it is inaccurate or unfair, its targets will be replying publicly soon enough, giving interviews to set the record straight, slagging off the spin doctors working for the other side and probably producing their own material in response.

Dark ads, on the other hand, may never be seen by the parties they are criticising. The people they are served to might be able to cut through spin or they might not. The adverts others are being shown might even be completely factually accurate. The problem is no one has any way of checking.

In an age when world leaders are unscrupulous about talking complete nonsense even when there isn’t an election going on, we simply cannot trust campaigning politicians to be honest in their advertising. The internet has provided a platform for the spread of “fake news”, but it has also enabled fact checking to be swift and merciless.

• The story of City Academy Hackney’s decision to slash the school day by half an hour could scarcely have come at a worse time for the Conservatives, whose new funding formula is the reason the school is expected to lose the equivalent of 19 teachers by 2022. You probably won’t see that on any of their dark ads.