By Allyson Brooks, LWV of Thurston County
On January 16, I had the privilege of attending the Public Disclosure Commission’s symposium on social media and digital advertising on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Washington State. The symposium was titled “Big Data, Big Dollars: Shining Light on Political on Digital Political Advertising.” I would encourage all League members to view the event from the TVW archives.
What I thought would be a straightforward discussion of how advertising is bought, how to identify those who purchase campaign ads, and how to track and enforce disclosure turned into a much more complicated discussion than I had imagined. How social media platforms operate and how advertising is bought and targeted is far from the straightforward transactions we remember from the 20th century.
As most of us are aware, the money spent on digital political campaign ads has exploded exponentially over the past few election cycles and is expected to dramatically increase again in 2020 over a variety of social media platforms beyond Facebook and Google.
A number of interesting topics were brought up, including one I found particularly interesting: what is political content? Many of us who are older consider political content to be direct campaign advertising. In the 21st century this is no longer the case. The presenters showed social media posts with names that do not directly tie to campaigns but, regardless, are designed to influence voters. For example, it could be “People for a Better America,” “The Bernie Coloring Cook,” or “Jews or Christians for….”
On Facebook I often see people taking a photograph of their ballots and posting them online, saying “I voted for ….” Will this type of post be considered political content? What about discussions between friends designed to influence each other? Again, the concept of political content as we remember from the 20th century is no longer equivalent in the 21st century.
The panelists also explained that there are so many advertising buys on social media platforms that companies like Facebook do not have enough employees to monitor all these purchases. Therefore, when those companies are required to monitor and disclose political advertising, the identification process is done by a computer, not by a human employee. This means that content meant to influence voters may not be caught and tracked by the platform. Further, every social media platform has a different standard regarding what they consider political advertising, and they did not expect any direction on national standards from the Federal Elections Commission.
One of the academic researchers mentioned that although Facebook agreed to archive political advertising, a software glitch caused them to lose 40% of all the ads that were placed prior to the recent elections in the United Kingdom. This tells us that having companies self-regulate and be the archive for digital ads may not be the safest approach. While Facebook was the most discussed media platform, it was clear from the panels that other platforms, such as Google, were barely taking the issue seriously and had lower standards than Facebook.
The presenters from campaign consulting firms (who, although representing both Republican and Democratic candidates, took pride in presenting together!) illustrated the mechanics of buying digital ads, which can be complicated. Purchases can go through many layers of marketing companies and are often not directly purchased from the digital platform. Among the spider web of marketing buys it became confusing as to who would and should be responsible for the disclosure of the influencing posts? Is it the marketing firm with the initial contract? The final marketing company? All marketing companies who have a role in targeting specific citizens? Or the platform from which the final advertisement is placed?
Finally, academics who focused on this topic noted that being able to force disclosure and conduct enforcement on foreign actors may never be feasible. Several social media platforms aren’t even located in the United States. TikTok, a Beijing company, claims it has banned political advertising from its platform.
It was clear from the symposium that there is no national standard on digital campaign advertising, social media platforms self-regulate using very different standards, too many political ads run without disclaimers, and there is no regulation of foreign actors. I left with the sense that we are on an open frontier in the 21st century that is far ahead of our 20th-century thinking. It will not be easy to corral the situation, but I certainly appreciated the fact that our Public Disclosure Commissioners are willing to take this on.