Most people celebrated when Twitter announced its ban on political ads in October, and for good reason – there’s a lot wrong with the current state of political campaigning online. But as the first Facebook employee who worked on paid political marketing in Europe, I am convinced that simply banning political ads on social media fixes nothing; in my opinion, it encourages inflammatory, polarising rhetoric and drives campaign money elsewhere. I believe that digital platforms are legitimate campaign spaces, and politics could actually be improved – through increased democratic participation and civic engagement – if big tech made the efforts to fix digital political advertising, rather than just banning it. Here are three steps Twitter, Facebook, Google and the like could take today.
No more micro-targeting
Social profiling by data companies has existed for many years, in political and commercial marketing. But the intersection of data and digital has created ways to target messages so precisely that it now feels possible for advertisers to reach inside consumers’ minds. When that data is acquired from dubious sources – such as Cambridge Analytica – people feel violated and manipulated.
Some political campaigns have used third-party data and digital to honest ends, but many others – particularly here in GDPR-protected Europe – refuse to do so, and still manage to be effective and successful. Though Cambridge Analytica was a global scandal and exposed lax data controls, the belief internally at Facebook – and one I still hold now I’ve left – is that the actual impact of its dodgy data on elections was overstated. Political campaigns don’t need to connect big data and digital, and the methods can be abused – so big tech should just put an end to it.
At the moment, political campaigns can upload their own data to Facebook to target voters with ads – a process called “custom audiences” – but Facebook has no way of knowing where these custom audience lists came from, and whether they were sourced legitimately or purchased from third parties.
Banning the use of off-platform data sources – whether that’s email lists of party members, voter files or dubiously purchased contact lists from data companies – for political ads, as Google has just announced, would immediately provide reassurance that the sort of creepy micro-targeted ads we have seen proliferate will be no more. If tech firms were to restrict ad targeting only to location and demographics, campaigning would survive – the appropriate messages would still reach the right people, but without the violation and manipulation.
No more “dark ads”
Facebook is trying to do this already, but all other digital platforms should follow suit. Since 2018, the Facebook ad library – a searchable website that anyone can access – has kept a record of all the adverts relating to politics and elections that have run on the social network. By publishing political ads, their targeting and the amount spent on them, there is now greater public scrutiny of campaign messaging and methodologies than ever before. When we launched the ad library during my final months at Facebook, there were difficult phone calls and fraught email exchanges with some of my political clients. They were initially concerned that their campaign strategies might be exposed, though they soon gleefully realised their rivals’ would be, too. We knew the process of authorising people to run political ads, and then publishing them, was going to ruffle some feathers in European parties, but ultimately would be worth it.
The library has in itself ended some of the shadier practices: once it began requiring advertisers’ names and addresses in the UK, the flow of ads from a notoriously obscure pro-Brexit organisation immediately ceased.
All digital publishers should follow suit and bring an end to dark ads. Banning political ads outright, however, would push campaigning back into the shadows – and less ethical campaigns would just find more underhand ways to reach voters.
No more paid lies
Facebook has tried to address the proliferation of fake news, misinformation and flat-out lying on social media, paying independent third-party fact-checkers (such as journalists and civil society organisations) to review and classify content. This fact-checking has not, however, been applied to “political speech”, as one campaign’s election pledge could be another campaign’s fake news.
Tech firms should show more imagination in responding to this challenge. While I appreciate their reluctance to become arbiters of political speech, by definitively saying whether something is “true” or “false” there are still steps that could be taken. Flags could be placed on ads to alert viewers that details within the content have been disputed by other parties, or that the origin of a video or image has been questioned. Include these “grey area” flags on ads in the public library and soon you’d be able to see whether a campaign is being consistently untruthful or publishing dubious content. In cases where a claim made in a political ad could be demonstrably proven to be false, this ad should not be allowed to run.
Facebook’s own employees are confident there can be a middle ground on fact-checking, which neither mandates the tech firm to shut down freedom of speech nor allows the current free-for-all to continue unchecked. In my five years working with political ads, I joined many smart, ethical people at Facebook grappling with the unexpected challenges we were facing, and trying hard to come up with the right responses. My guess is that the current intransigence is a question of financing. Although many may think that big tech earns big sums from political ads, it doesn’t – as is clear from the data that Google shares about the political advertising it runs. Meanwhile, every investment the sector makes in stamping out abuses costs money – potentially more than some firms are making from political advertising in the first place.
But when Silicon Valley sets such lofty missions as “connect the world” and “do no evil”, it has a moral obligation to put its money where its mouth is. Right now, big tech needs to invest whatever it takes to fix the mess digital platforms have created. And if that’s means raising the retainer fees for their fact-checkers, or hiring five times as many of them – so be it. They can afford it. And they owe it to democracy.
• Clare O’Donoghue Velikić was the government and politics client partner at Facebook, where she founded the political ads team for Europe, until July 2019