The Liberal Party has been caught out apparently breaching Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) rules on political advertising.

Facebook – the Web 2.0 social networking phenomenon (see earlier posts) – is the latest battleground for voters’ hearts and minds and it’s also the site of a political advertisement for the Liberal Party which appears to be in breach of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

According to the AEC, “Section 328 (1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (CEA) requires all electoral advertisements to include the name and address of the person who authorised the advertisement”. But the ad you see below, which appeared when I navigated to the homepage of one of my Facebook friends this evening, provides no such attribution – just the carriage of the word ‘sponsored’. Given its obvious pro-Howard government spin and appreciating the laws of political advertising, this ad piqued my interest. When I clicked on the image I was redirected to the homepage of the Liberal Party of Australia. Mystery solved. This is a Liberal Party advertisement, sans mandatory acknowledgement of authorisation. Twenty minutes later when I randomly visited another FB friend’s page the ad appeared again – it’s presumably on high rotation.

The ‘Seinfeldian’ bent of the ad and its subtlety were no doubt designed to appeal almost subliminally to the youth market – the demographic where the Coalition is fighting its biggest losing battle. But it is clearly still a political advertisement and there is no loophole for social networking sites in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Perhaps the Liberal Party will deny they placed the advertisement – maybe some well intentioned Facebook-savvy sponsor linked the ad to the Liberal Party website without informing the boss? I strongly doubt it. Perhaps the Coalition is hoping Facebook users aren’t politically savvy enough to notice such breaches? Big mistake – I have Canberra Press Gallery journalists and a host of other reporters in my FB network…the media cottoned on to the power of social networking sites long before the politicians did. And, it’s a stupid politician who underestimates the intelligence of young voters. Perhaps the Liberal Party will argue that the fact the link, if clicked on (not that there’s any invitation to click on the image), identifies the government’s handiwork. Spurious argument: do TV advertisements rely on viewers investigating the source of advertisements? No. The Act is explicit – it REQUIRES ALL such advertising to carry details of the person/s authorising the plug.

In fact, the Howard Government actually ensured the internet was captured by the Act by legislating in July 2005 for its specific inclusion. At the time, the Special Minister of State, Eric Abetz told the technology news website, Zdnet Australia, “the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has adopted a policy of recommending to all political parties and the public who contemplate electoral advertising on the Internet that electoral matter conforms with the provisions of the Electoral Act.” Ironically, it was a website exposing Howard government ‘lies’, which failed to acknowledge political affiliations, that was the trigger for the legislative action clarifying the powers of the Act in relation to the Internet. It would appear the boot is now on the other foot.

Complaints about political advertising make up the bulk of matters referred to the AEC during an election campaign and the Liberal Party is probably counting on the fact that a written complaint is required to trigger an investigation. Four days out from an election, perhaps they’re willing to take their chances. But my next move after signing off here will be to write to the AEC. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Greens are also running political advertisements without official attribution on Facebook but the ads witnessed tonight are at least clearly identifiable as promotional material for the their party.

Julie Posetti is a journalist and journalism academic, who blogs at J-Scribe. The original post appeared here.