The upcoming 2020 election season may possibly end up as the busiest, most contentious and most expensive thus far.
This potentially unprecedented scenario we are witnessing has some worried that political action groups and other political players will resort to underhanded tactics to try and cripple political opponents through manipulative ads. And there is, in fact, precedent for this. Due to manipulative ads and other deceptive advertising practices during the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have implemented new transparency guidelines and verification systems for political advertising. Google has implemented similar systems for its advertising network.
Some believe that this is only a first step toward political ad transparency, however.
How Manipulative Ads Work
Manipulative political ads take a few forms, though they do share some traits in common.
The ads typically focus on only a single candidate, often appearing as though they support the candidate in question or were endorsed by the candidate’s campaign. The information they provide can be false or misleading, however, casting the candidate in a negative light for what viewers believe is that candidate’s viewpoint. The creator of the ad typically uses a name meant to sound like a political action committee or another group that could reasonably be affiliated with the candidate’s political party as well, both to further obscure the true nature of the ad and to potentially tarnish the image of the party and its followers.
Some ads take a more grassroots position as well, using sharable images and other content that is easily passed from user to user. This content often uses similar themes, or makes claims about candidates that are either significantly exaggerated or completely untrue; given the nature of the content, though, many social media users share the content without verifying its claims so long as it aligns with their own political beliefs or deals with a candidate that they do not like or support.
To help curb the effectiveness of manipulative ads and other forms of deceptive political action, transparency measures to help users identify political content has been introduced on some platforms.
The exact nature of the measures differ from platform to platform, but all take steps to explicitly identify the content in question as an advertisement and provide information to users about the individual or group that placed the ad.
Unfortunately, the current implementation of these measures leaves room for bad actors to get around the transparency requirements. An example of this would be a loophole in Facebook’s political ad transparency measures. Normally, the platform marks any political ad as “sponsored” and lists who paid for the ad while also linking to a gallery containing other political ads from the same sponsor. If one of these ads is shared by an individual or group on the platform, however, the transparency disclaimer and gallery link go away. This potentially allows manipulative ads or other highly biased political content to enter circulation without revealing that it is sponsored content or who published it.
A Call for More Transparency
In June, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) announced that it was rolling out new guidelines for political ads at both the state and federal level. The DAA, which is behind the “YourAdChoices” campaign that increases transparency and consumer options with other types of digital advertising, expects the guidelines to become effective on November 1, 2019, with enforcement by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) on January 1, 2020.
The new DAA guidelines will require identifying information be provided regarding the individual or group that placed political ads, accessible through a new Political Ad icon similar to the YourAdChoices icon. Clicking the icon will reveal the advertiser’s name and contact information, as well as other pertinent information such as contribution and expenditure records or other relevant disclosures.
The DAA isn’t the only group attempting to take action against deceptive and manipulative political advertising. Congress has introduced two different bills intended to curb the misuse of political ads in an attempt to unfairly influence the outcome of political campaigns.
The first of these bills is the Honest Ads Act, which requires public disclosures of those placing online political ads similar to what is already required by law for political ads in print, on television, and over the radio. The goal is to increase transparency and accountability for online political advertising. As of May, the legislation is being debated in committee and has not yet been brought to a vote.
The other bill currently under consideration is the Preventing Adversaries Internationally from Disbursing Advertising Dollars (PAID AD) Act, which has since been amended to the For the People Act of 2019. This bill seeks to amend existing campaign finance laws to close loopholes that allow foreign nationals to purchase or finance certain political ads. Under the law, only United States citizens would be able to finance ads that name any political candidate on any broadcast, cable, satellite or digital platforms.
The For the People Act of 2019 has passed the House of Representatives and has been read into the Senate twice; it is now on the Senate’s general calendar and is awaiting a vote.
It is clear that there is a need for transparency in political advertising, and multiple groups seek to find ways to implement this transparency while preventing abuses.
With the new DAA guidelines going into effect later this year, various online platforms will implement new transparency protections to comply with the Political Ad icon requirements. Some of these platforms may implement additional protections on their own, especially in light of how much manipulative advertising appeared on certain platforms in recent election cycles.