The nebulous realm of political advertising, issue advertising and microtargeting on digital platforms has sparked outrage and debate among industry leaders, political campaigners and citizens as to what needs to change in order to combat disinformation.

Political advertising in traditional forms of media – print, radio and television – were used by campaigns, notably in the United States, to inform and ultimately influence voters and has historically been contentious. One of the most controversial political ads was a commercial by US presidential candidate Lyndon B Johnson that aired in 1964, showing a young girl picking and counting petals from a daisy. After a reverse countdown from 10 is heard, a nuclear bomb detonates, ending with the message: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." The commercial is widely considered to be pivotal in Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

Over half a century later, political campaigns have increasingly shifted funding to digital platforms, promoting their messages to target voters. With US presidential elections less than a year away, it is estimated that campaigns will spend roughly $6 billion in advertising, with $1.2 billion (20%) devoted to digital. Though broadcast television ads will comprise more than half of 2020 federal campaign spending, how digital platforms manage political ads in the upcoming year and beyond will be under close examination by users and campaigns alike.

What’s in an ad?

A political advertisement has the specific objective to advocate for or oppose a political candidate or group. This differs from issue advertising, which has the goal of bringing awareness to a particular matter such as climate change or human rights. The boundaries are murky when advocacy groups encourage citizens to support an issue that is clearly aligned with a political group, but does not explicitly state so. In a recent advertisement by the conservative, US-based advocacy group FreedomWorks, Facebook users of all ages are targeted in Colorado, mobilizing them to lobby against the Green New Deal, sponsored by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This ambiguity over what ultimately constitutes a political ad was further exacerbated when Twitter revealed that it would ban all political advertising on its platform worldwide as of 22 November. Announced in a string of tweets, CEO Jack Dorsey wrote, “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.” The company initially stated it would ban issue ads, but later changed course stating that it would allow advertising of issues such as civil engagement, inequality and the environment.

In a move that came shortly after Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that all political ads will run in the interest of free speech, Twitter effectively banned legislation-based advertising such as the passing of the New Green Deal.

Whether the New Green Deal will cost each American family $600K is moot, but under Facebook’s current policy, an advertisement claiming this is still allowed to run, irrespective of its veracity. This uncontrolled environment has led to a surge in disinformation in online political advertising. Scrutiny of this development began shortly after the interference of Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, in not just the 2016 US presidential elections, but in the UK’s Brexit vote and in other elections across the globe. It was viewed as a watershed moment for society after it was made known that the organisation illicitly harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles to sway voters.

The link between political or issue advertising and misinforming citizens is aggravated when digital platforms engage in microtargeting, which uses predictive market segmentation to transmit a tailored message to a subgroup based on specific criteria about it. In the FreedomWorks advertisement, 25-34-year-olds, a demographic that is characteristically pro-environment, only made up roughly 10% of those shown this ad, whereas the most targeted group was those 65 and over, comprising nearly 40%.

To regulate or not to regulate?

Online advertising typically falls outside of the purview of media regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission in the United States and the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, governments worldwide have been unable to keep up and fully comprehend the algorithms that allow online political ads to reach wide audiences.

On this point, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote: “We need more forward-looking political ad regulation … Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough. The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field.” While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes, "We should be proactive and write policies that help free expression triumph around the world", regulation can play a crucial force to mitigate the threats of disinformation.

To give an example, after it was concluded that Russia-backed political advertisements reached 126 million Americans on Facebook during and after the 2016 presidential election, the Honest Ads Act was put forth in the US Senate in October 2017. Proposed by senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar and Lindsey Graham, the bill seeks to regulate campaign advertisements online, in hopes of ensuring that such ads are not purchased directly or indirectly by foreign entities and to improve the transparency of online political advertisements.

Full disclosure

The argument that online political advertising gives non-incumbents a platform on which their issues can be heard is a good one. Nevertheless, simply permitting or restricting political advertising is only part of the chain of events required to influence citizens. Paid-for political reach combined with microtargeting and a lack of fact-checking leads to misleading claims. This process is amplified when digital platforms are gathering an abundance of data points on connected users, serving as a primary channel to convene, entertain, inform and ultimately influence.

Few would disagree that greater transparency is an imperative to improve the current state of digital political advertising. A first practical step is to make the sender and targeted recipient transparent. Making evident the identity and location of the person or entity who purchased the ad is critical, as well as the intended target population, be it based on assumptions of political affiliation and personality type, or on demographics such as geolocation, race, age and gender. While debating the most effective approach towards halting the adverse impact of political advertising on citizens will continue, greater transparency on platforms is a step in the right direction that will hopefully lead to a more informed, united and inclusive online society.