In recent years, the impact of misinformation spread through political adverts running on social media platforms has caused a crisis in American and European democratic systems. While many recognise the problem, few ideas have surfaced for how to fix it. Publicis Media's head of strategy, Shann Biglione, offers some ideas.
Part of my job is to recommend where and what ads to buy. As a media strategist, I’ve always looked at paid social media as a great marketing opportunity. But as a concerned citizen, I’ve seen many of these platforms weaponized at our expense.
In response, Twitter took the extreme measure of simply banning all political ads. I commend them for at least acknowledging the issue and owning that responsibility. But the reality is that advertising does play a role and that suppressing it will also disproportionately impact political messages that don’t have natural reach. It concentrates power to the headliners and gives more power to highly polarizing content that is more likely to be engaged with. But political ads shouldn’t be seen as a binary issue, to be allowed to flourish unregulated or be banned outright. Better safeguards are critical.
Here are six ideas that could make the advertising ecosystem more balanced for political ads. Three are easy, two are hard, and one is admittedly a little wild. And some of them could very well apply to the world beyond social media.
Easy: ban all political advertising not purchased/endorsed by the official candidate. No PACs, no foreign buys.
One of the issues that plagued the 2016 US presidential and midterm elections was the spread of false information and the weaponization of the information ecosystem by foreign entities. Typically, this was the result of ’dark’ investments not directly related to the candidate (even if they sometimes involved collusion). Allowing only candidate-bought and candidate-approved messages would be a simple step to combat this. No third parties allowed. Basically, remove the bozos.
Easy: No audience targeting, with the exception of geo-targeting for local/state elections
There is still debate in the ad community whether precision targeting – where messages are tightly crafted for individual issues – really works or not. But the reality is that it’s what the industry still swears by, and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal we can all agree that precautionary measures are worth it. There is a simple way around it: just don’t allow audience targeting for political campaigns. Period. If you want to get your message out there, it should be seen by everybody and not allow campaigns to twist messages around single issues. Politicians will be representing their entire constituency; their messages should be seen by all.
One exception to this should be local and state elections, to at least allow candidates to be seen by the people voting for them. Other than that, it’s an easy fix: ban it all.
Easy: Set up a publicly accessible list of all ads distributed
One problem with digital ads is that they’re hard to track and it’s difficult to see which messages have been put out in the world. If we are to keep candidates honest, it is helpful to know exactly what they are saying. Let voters (and legislators) see them. I do believe that enforcing the first suggestion in this list would address this also, but having a public page for a political campaign showing all ads broadcast would help with that, and prepare us for the next three (harder) ideas.
Hard: Flag all ads with a link to a fact check review, with links to facts related to the points raised in the ad
Admittedly, it’s complicated to flag an ad as ’false’. While some might be blatant lies, many sit in a grey area, meaning that while a candidate can be disingenuous, but stay on the right side of the rules. Furthermore, some audiences may view the act of flagging as a partisan action. So let’s match all the ads with a link to evidence about the claims made. This might sound like an overkill, but I believe it’s the best way to avoid partisan accusations, however right the flagging might be. The key question of course is ’who will do it’? One way is to appoint your own fact checking team recruiting people from across the political spectrum. The easiest, however, will be to work with credible third-party fact checking partners, like the AFP or FactCheck.org. And yes, I know, some people don’t like them, but it’ll be a lot easier to establish transparency. Besides, there’s anot direct benefit: having access to fact checking matched to the messages puts more incentives on a campaign to get its message straight, and would invite voters to seek information.
On a side note, there’s been a lot of debate around having a government-approved body to do this. My contention here is that while freedom of speech isn’t really at stake here (it’s a flag, not censorship), ultimately the spirit of the First Amendment is about limiting the government’s influence on what people say. What if a government has too much power? Couldn’t this be used against the intent of the policy? Globally it would force the social platforms to decide which government they are comfortable operating with, based on their own assessment of a state’s trustworthiness – much worse outcome.
Hard: Verified fact check accounts to comment on ads
This is a corollary/complement to the above suggestion, if not an alternative. Social media ads have a useful feature that most ads don’t: they can be commented on. What if we created a fact check account that directly provides information in the comments, pinned up on top? This allows the community to see it easily, and by definition it would be open to commentary and criticism. Generally speaking, it would feel less prescriptive and more constructive, while playing to the strengths of these platforms.
Weird: Allow opponents to respond to attack ads
To American audiences, ad breaks can feel like a battlefield, with viewers caught in the crossfire. Seriously, as a new kid here, it’s pretty intense. And that sensation is worse by several orders of magnitude on social media. If it’s part of the game, fine. But can we throw some jujitsu moves, use the opponent’s force and make it part of the solution? A way to improve this could be to allow a response from each candidate on attack ads. Give them a chance (and the right) to provide a response, whether it’s a flagged post in the comments or, maybe, via a specially designed carousel format for these ads. Using their budget to provide their opponents oxygen would surely give aggressive campaigns pause and potentially disrupt the use of disingenous or untrue claims. It would bring a necessary nuance. Make the ad platform a place for debate, not a shooting gallery.
Sure, these may not all be actionable. Some are probably a little naïve. But this is not the wild west anymore, and what is clear to me is that no tech company worth hundreds of billions of dollars can stand up in front of us in 2020 and pretend that nothing can be done. And hiding behind ’freedom of speech’ is unbecoming of corporations with such human, intellectual and financial capital. If really nothing can be done, what was the point of accumulating all this might?