COMMENT

When the Advertising Standards Authority received four complaints about National's "fuel price" posts on social media, I saw it as something of a test case.

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Would the ASA stamp on it, making an example of the misleading ad - hopefully saving us from a US and UK-style barrage of post-truth political messaging on Twitter and Facebook?

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Or would it go soft?

It went soft, setting a limp precedent that effectively means all parties can post misleading graphics with abandon (of course, Facebook or Twitter could stamp on factually incorrect content themselves as the publishers, but given their track record overseas, don't hold your breath).

National's fuel price ad purported to illustrate how much more we're paying at the pump under Labour (see graphic below).

Auckland University statistics professor Thomas Lumley complained the ad's central feature - two bar graphs - was wildly out of proportion, exaggerating the price difference four-fold, whether you allowed for inflation (which the ad didn't) or not.

A majority on the ASA panel decided it was okay to have an ad that was visually out-of-scale and did not uphold any of the four complaints.

The watchdog said in its decision: "The data displayed was correct which saved the hyperbolic graphic from being misleading, given the political medium used and the principles of advocacy advertising ... The majority of the Complaints Board said the execution of the infographic was mischievous but did not reach the threshold to mislead within an advocacy environment."

"Hyperbolic", if you don't have a dictionary on hand, means deliberately exaggerated or overstated.

Why has the ASA decided that it's okay in the political context? I'd say it's the one place to avoid it. 'Mischievous' is acceptable when ads compare potato chips, but only undermines our democracy when comes to elections.

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Source figures questioned

It's also worth noting that one of the four complainants, Dylan Reeve, emphasised that he saw the ad's figures being as misleading as the graph.

"Using an average, and showing absolute prices rather than proportional figures, gives the previous National government unreasonable advantages based on inflation, international price changes and increasing distributor profit margins that have contributed to overall cost increases during the period they're averaging," Reeve told the ASA.

He turned out to be wasting his breath with the regulator, but the editor and film-maker is now effectively pushing his case through social media (so, yes, it's good for something).

Reeve told the Herald this morning, "If, rather than an average over National's entire Government, you look at the petrol price when they left power in October 2017 and compare it to the number at the time of their ad there is no real proportional change. The tax component of the price was 50% at both points in time."

There were also nine complaints about a similar National ad on Facebook and Twitter, featured an out-of-scale bar graph comparing rents under National and Labour. Those were not upheld either, with the ASA's decision taking a similar tack.

Facebook wins

Meanwhile, Labour says it's signed up to Facebook's new transparency rules around political ads (and National got dibs from the ASA for its authorisation statement in its fuel price ad's fine print - albeit with that also being seen as giving it a license for "advocacy" which in turn apparently excused misleading graphics).

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Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during their September, 2019 meeting at Parliament. Photo / @Jack
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during their September, 2019 meeting at Parliament. Photo / @Jack

My response to that, I'm afraid, is "So what?" Facebook continues to display fake ads from scamsters purporting to be everyone from John Key to the NZ Herald to - just over this past fortnight - PakNSave. So if an ad says it's by Labour (or National or Green or NZ First), I'll automatically take that with a grain of salt. And then, with watchdogs like the ASA and the social networks themselves, I'll take any ad's content with several more grains.

(And on a side note, Facebook must be pretty happy that National and Labour are so wholeheartedly embracing it for their campaign messaging, on top of various government departments throwing buckets of money at it. It makes it even less likely that there will be any serious post-Christchurch regulation of social media.)

What can a voter do, faced with the post-truth politics of Facebook and Twitter, sitting nestled among their sewer of anti-vaxx forums, 5G and fluoride conspiracy theories and hate content?

One option is to turn to ye olde traditional media.

The Herald has already run fact-checkers on National's promotional efforts (here) and Labour's (here) and more will follow.