Despite the best efforts of several technology firms, there still seem to be secretive groups distributing political ads without disclosing who is funding those ads. Even if Facebook starts discouraging advertisers from targeting users on the basis of race, gender or age, as it recently announced, the wealth of existing data that it has already collected will still allow advertisers to do sophisticated ad targeting.
Social media firms want to regulate themselves, and Google has threatened to withdraw all political ads in Canada if it finds transparency rules too onerous. Facebook offers political ad archives in a few countries, and searching by hand is laborious. Independent researchers can investigate trends computationally, but Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing more and more to restrict access. There is negligible access to Instagram, where huge volumes of Russian-origin misinformation now flows. Banning political ads or creating partial ad archives in some countries won’t strengthen the world’s democracies. Ad bans give incumbent politicians an unfair advantage, and establishing partial ad archives gives political ad buyers an incentive to not declare their ads as political.
Elections officials and ad regulators in the world’s democracies urgently need to sort this out: Nearly a billion people in India and across Europe will prepare to vote in the next few months, and presidential campaigning in the United States has already started. The solution is to have all technology companies put all ads, all the time, into public archives.
One of the best policy initiatives to emerge so far was introduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain — the bipartisan Honest Ads Act. It would require disclosure of how advertisements were targeted as well as how much the ads cost. This would allow election officials — indeed, any citizen — to see what politicians and lobbyists are saying in social media advertising. Combined with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Bot Disclosure and Accountability Act, these initiatives would require the disclosure of political ad spending and limit the use of automation behind ad messaging.
They don’t go far enough, however, because not all foreign governments and shady lobbyists will disclose their political ads, and the public has no way of verifying that social media companies are doing their own due diligence. Research has found that the most polarizing Facebook ad content comes from political groups that don’t even register with the Federal Election Commission and that these groups generate four times as many ads as those that do.
A comprehensive archive of all ads would create a record of all such misinformation campaigns that could be used to prevent them in the future. The people and groups behind these ads aren’t going to volunteer the details about them on their own. A fully searchable public archive, maintained by an independent ad council financed by a fraction of ad revenues, will give democracy a healthy shot of algorithmic transparency.
Facebook’s political archive for the United States keeps a running total of the number of ads and dollars spent. Since May 2018 Facebook advertisers have spent over $517 million on more than three million ads that advertisers themselves report as being political. Despite all the scrutiny, political ads on social media are still big business.
Our team at the Oxford Internet Institute recently worked with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the United States to reveal that Russia’s social media campaigning actually expanded after the 2016 election. We know that Russian ads, commentary and other activities grew significantly after the election on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube right up to the moment the companies gave us the data in the summer of 2018.
Our analysis of the substance of Russian messaging shows that first and foremost, they targeted extreme right-wing voters with ads encouraging aggressive and confrontational participation in American politics. Second, Russian ads encouraged African-Americans to disengage from electoral politics and even boycott the election as a mode of protest. Finally, Russian spin masters encouraged Latino and Hispanic identity politics in an effort to anger conservative voters.
It’s important that data for this archive is collected in real time, all the time. Social media platforms aren’t being used only at election time to manipulate voters. We recently built a limited junk news aggregator and found misinformation about vaccinations and health, scientific findings, stock prices and a range of public policy issues. Investigating the impact of social media ads can have positive outcomes, for example by helping medical researchers understand which campaigns best improve public health. If officials decided to investigate suspected misinformation or manipulation during an election, they would have the evidence they need.
Moreover, a full public archive would help “future-proof” us from new problems that might arise from social media advertising. A permanent, real-time archive would let us detect and expose misinformation campaigns as they rise. Voters and regulators must get ready for a world of “deep fake” videos, intelligent bots that interact with voters and personalized political ads with keywords, voice tone, and facial features that we individually will respond to.
There are over 250 million eligible voters in the United States. How will social media companies and elections officials cope if a candidate for president in 2020 generates 250 million different political ads?
Most importantly, a real-time archive would be consistent with long-held values around advertising. If Facebook or Google takes ad revenue for promoting political misinformation, or misinformation of any kind, it should face the same regulatory punishments that a broadcaster would face. And the only way to track the ads and hold these companies accountable is through a publicly accessible archive.
Technology companies perform best, and behave most responsibly, when public expectations are clear and consistent. Getting all ads, in real time, globally, into public archives is the next big step for strengthening democracy.