5 Questions For Political Ad Disclosure Advocates
Dear proponents of political digital disclosure: I have some questions for you.
Regulating paid political speech is hard, and nobody has gotten it right. Earlier this year, Marc Farinella, of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, gathered 17 political digital professionals to see where we could agree.
There has been much written lately about how to regulate digital political ads, which will account for a third of all 2020 political spending, but the devil is in the details. Disclosure or nondisclosure is not a binary choice; we will never come to agreement without a nationwide whiteboarding session. Let’s start with five easy questions.
What is a political ad?
Should we regulate ads only intended for electioneering, or also corporate public affairs or even business-to-business communications? Proponents of defining “political” advertising more broadly, to cover anything relating to current political and public affairs policies, must explain why this should only apply to digital and not every other form of political and public affairs messaging.
If you think this is easy, have a look at the hole that Twitter dug for itself when it announced that it would ban political advertising on its platform. The worst job in politics right now may be the Twitter public affairs customer service rep, who must explain why one ad is political and another isn’t.
Who defines truth?
Lots of people have different ideas for how to solve fake and deceptive messaging, but many are unconstitutional or fail to get to the heart of the problem.
Facebook won’t fact-check political ads, but it otherwise made its own rabbit hole with its content oversight board, the “Supreme Court,” which is well-intentioned but will ultimately make local political advertising a worse business than it already is for the social network.
Snapchat will fact-check political ads, which won’t be hard because few people run political ads for 14-year-olds. Total Snapchat political spending in 2018 was smaller than what Michael Bloomberg spent in less than a day during his presidential launch.
Demand-side platforms won’t touch fact-checking, given the logistical hurdles of handling that sort of volume. No tech company wants to be in the business of verifying whether someone is lying about their tax vote record on city council.
The point is that we aren’t at a place in the national conversation where we can determine what a fact is and agree on what sort of process is (or should be) in place to dispute fake facts. In the end, the model will either be similar to broadcast television, where ads can be taken down if successfully challenged on the facts, or the US Postal Service, which delivers mail regardless of whether lies are contained inside the envelope.
What does expenditure disclosure mean?
Nearly all political professionals agree that disclosure with digital advertising is a good idea. What that means is open to wide interpretation.
Should disclosure imply a “Paid for” disclaimer, which puts campaigns on par with direct mail? Should it refer to the publishing of client data in a searchable database, which meets and exceeds what the FEC requires for federal campaigns? Going further, should vendors be required to expose their entire tech stack or even markup by listing every sub-vendor? The most extreme example is Washington state, whose policy requiring commercial advertisers to disclose details such as who paid for political ads and the cost went so far that the largest platforms pulled out of the state.
Regardless of the outcome, there needs to be far more education before enforcement. During the last campaign cycle, an election law enforcement official from a midwestern state mistakenly asked to see our FCC disclosures for digital ads. It was surprising because we don’t file digital ads with the FCC, but the election official didn’t understand that. Of all the people who should understand the rules governing political digital ads, he should be near the top.
What data can be used to target?
Opposed to voter file targeting, but not opposed other CRM targeting? A voter file looks just like any other CRM file, and it can be impossible to tell them apart.
We could be approaching an environment where the most sophisticated targeting may happen on direct mail and telemarketing, using any number of complex voting segments that could be banned with digital ads. It makes no sense that one could knock on a voter’s door and leverage vote history and party affiliation data, but not do the same online.
What media are we talking about?
So maybe we’ve agreed to define what is political, what is truth, what is disclosure and what data can be used to target. We’re not done yet. What about logistical hurdles? And which tactics does this apply to – OTT? SMS? Mobile display?
All of this is hard. After two days of healthy debate at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, the Working Group on Digital Political Media and Democracy agreed to the following principles:
Each election cycle, millions of dollars are spent on digital political advertising without transparency into these transactions – including who pays for the ads. The funding sources of digital political ads on all platforms and systems must be disclosed. Voters are entitled to know who is paying for political ads.
To successfully combat foreign and domestic bad actors seeking to influence elections, oversight and disclosure requirements must be uniform across all digital advertising platforms and systems.
All political digital practitioners must accept an ethical and moral responsibility to never use digital content that incites violence or is maliciously manufactured to misrepresent actual events.
Properly designed and executed transparency requirements can counter bad actors and impede foreign interference in elections. However, it is critical that such requirements carefully target bad actors and not force unnecessary disclosure of legitimate competitive information that is strategically valuable to candidates and campaigns.
The honest debate we are seeing is healthy. However, we should admit that in the absence of federal (not state) regulation, it’s up to private players to fix this.
By Jordan Lieberman, General Manager of Politics and Public Affairs, for Campaign & Elections