Facebook released dozens of "ads" to parliament last week. All of them in the name of the Leave side of the referendum. Many don’t identify where they come from, who paid for them or who created them.
The culture, media and sport select committee’s response was: "We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy." Such is the power of micro-targeted propaganda. It works like this: the data tells me you’re interested in animal welfare so I send you an ad that says the European Union is responsible for allowing bullfighting. Another claims that if we left the EU, we could better protect polar bears.
It doesn’t matter if it is true because there’s no regulation. If you live in an area prone to flooding, guess what? You’ll be told that the "Brexit dividend" will be spent on flood defences. If you’re a mother, you'll be told it will be spent on more maternity units or education or, if you live in Wales, on the steel industry. Because no one sees all the ads, they can literally tell conflicting and contradictory stories without detection.
The tip of the iceberg
And then there’s immigration. Apparently 5.2 million people are about to move to the UK from Europe and A&E departments will be overrun. Even the Great British cuppa is under threat, although the ads never explain how. Turns out the big red bus was just the tip of the iceberg. We can feel justifiably outraged by all of this but as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said recently: "Nobody was complaining when Obama used social media to win."
Unbelievably, the Advertising Standards Authority has decided not to get involved. The official explanation is that "it would be restraining the freedom of political speech". The ASA website advises anyone with a complaint to "contact the person responsible and tell them what you think". A bit difficult when, in most cases, it’s impossible to find out who is responsible.
And who is responsible? I doubt these messages are being knocked out from a backroom in Soho or Shoreditch but who knows? In an era when most brands are concerned with trust, honesty and purpose and their communications reflect this, there’s a darker side to what we do.
We can try to separate ourselves from the shameful propaganda that’s going on in the shadows but, to the public, it’s all part of the same business.
Russell Ramsey is the interim executive creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky London