For the past two years, I’ve taught a lively business ethics course at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Spending hours in a room with hundreds of curious business minds has led to impassioned conversations around topics that have ranged from Uber’s classification of employees vs. independent contractors to Wells Fargo’s fraudulent checking accounts.
Yet, as I sat down to grade this semester’s crop of final papers, one topic dominated all else—and that was the role of digital platforms in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Digital and online social platforms are taking heat for allowing misleading ad campaigns to reach voters. Beyond the political bubble, broader societal concerns are being raised over the ways in which the automated, algorithmic content models that fuel these properties have turned manipulative at best and, at worst, sinister.
As I pored through page after page of analysis in my students’ papers, I began to wonder if digital advertising methods that utilize this kind of targeting and automation be used ethically by political campaigns.
The question was especially poignant to me, as I am currently embarking on a political campaign of my own. After years cutting my teeth in roles working for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the White House, and launching the advocacy startup Creative Caucus, I decided it was time to get off the sidelines.
In June 2018, I’ll be competing in the Democratic primary in New York’s 12th District. My mission is to run an adamantly transparent campaign, replacing antiquated means for driving voter engagement with a startup mentality. Naturally, digital media will be core to our efforts.
In my soul-searching, I’ve been asking myself how we—as a political system, as the so-called digital community, and as citizen-voters—have gotten here, and what needs to be done to improve the way we reach voters in the future. Here’s where I landed.
Transparency and the digital media knowledge gap
Let’s start at the top: Facebook and Google profit on an informational asymmetry. Their fundamental models necessitate one signal being “better” or being “more relevant” than another. These ranking systems began as organic, but have evolved into an ecosystem that invites third-parties to “game” the system via targeted media buys.
Media is, of course, a natural by-product of free models in which user subscriptions cannot be relied upon as a source of revenue. Users agree to certain Ts and Cs, which allow the platforms to sell their data—and their attention—to marketers who are eager to get their messages in front of the right people, at the right place, at the right moment.
If you’ve worked in digital this is all quite obvious, but many consumers do not understand just how deeply their side of these marketplaces are subsidized by businesses whose sole aim is to influence their actions.
This knowledge gap is a big problem, and a general lack of transparency has bred user bases that don’t always understand how or why the content they experience reaches them in the first place, making them prime targets for deception.
Technology can’t delineate between P&G and propaganda
For time immemorial, brands have been utilizing a host of strategies to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions—and we’ve generally been OK with that! In the United States, the FTC stipulates that marketers must adhere to a series of ethical principles: do not harm; foster trust in marketing; and embrace ethical values.
Marketers are allowed to add some fluff and pizazz to their efforts, and mere puffery is legally permissible in cases where no reasonable person would take the statement seriously. This is, after all, the foundation of all great creative advertising. But let’s for a moment expand our view beyond typical consumer brands to include political causes.
Digital advertising existed during the 2012 election cycle, but certainly not of the same magnitude as it exists today. In fact, the share of digital political spending increased 3X between 2014 and 2016.
In 2016, political causes co-opted the very same technologies used by CPG companies and retailers to elevate messages that had the potency to alter the outcome of a democratic election. These digital platforms had been touting their ability to drive real-world impact for brands, but they got much more than they bargained for when the outcome became more complex than singing cash registers.
The ethical path forward
Digital is the fastest-growing advertising channel and it recently surpassed television to gobble up the most spend for the first time ever. Facebook and Google sit as an established duopoly in the new dynamic, banking the lion’s share of this investment.
With the platforms focused on driving revenue and brands (including political causes) thirsty to take advantage of data-targeting capabilities, it’s easy to see how things have spun out of control. Perhaps the most eye-opening consideration is that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to political ad spending in digital. In 2016, digital accounted for under 10 percent of overall spend. What happens when that number catches up with the rest of the marketing world?
When it comes to digital, we must hold political advertisers to a higher standard than advertisers who are shilling soap, cookies, and footwear on Facebook. Here’s how political advertising in “new media” channels should be handled:
Mandate the same transparency in digital ads that is required when political causes advertise in more traditional channels. In these places, causes must disclose the source of the funding of the ad at a bare minimum. This policy, called the Honest Ads Act, is currently before Congress.
Support candidates who go above and beyond when it comes to transparency. In the absence of hard and fast rules, candidates ought to articulate their efforts with respect to transparency and clearly communicate them to the voting populous.
For example, my campaign will not utilize professional voiceover talent or actors (just me)—and we will obsessively source every graphic, statistic, and fact we use. Further, we will lean on live-streaming and podcasting to give people a more intimate and unfiltered look at our campaign.
With great opportunity comes greater responsibility
The remarkable opportunity that digital media has afforded the commercial world cannot be ignored. When used effectively, digital marketing can build a new electorate that is more representative of the actual population of potential voters. It is a new, somewhat untested medium to reach people directly from a new angle that has not necessarily been employed successfully or to its fullest impact.
With this hopeful mindset, however, candidates and political causes must be held to a higher standard. At bare minimum, disclosure in digital must be hashed out amongst legislators and platform executives. Beyond that, candidates on all levels, from local government to the Oval Office, ought to take on the personal mission to hold themselves to higher standards in their use of digital.