Solving the political ad problem with transparency

The Conversation

File 20171016 30962 1tqe36c.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The American people used to get more information in common.

Seth Copen Goldstein, Carnegie Mellon University

Almost all the content and advertising on the internet is customized to each viewer. The impact of this kind of content distribution on the 2016 election is still being explored. But, we can certainly say that the campaigns used this to say different things to different people without having to worry about accuracy.

Addressing this problem by having people screen ads is impractical and legally questionable. A more straightforward solution based on current disclosure laws is being discussed in Congress: Increase transparency by having digital media platforms post all ads on a web page that everyone can view.

Before the web, big data and machine learning, political groups and campaigns reached their target audiences through mass media – newspapers, radio and television. Most everyone saw the same news reports and advertisements at the same times. As a result, the public shared a common base of knowledge about what political candidates were saying. No longer.

Today, digital media platforms track what users look at, search for, post, like and share to micro-target their users with ads they are likely to want to see. Compared to the scattershot approach taken on TV and other mass media, micro-targeted ads are amazingly effective. This is great for the media platforms, who get to make money from advertisers. It is great for consumers, who can trade their time viewing ads they are likely to want to see in exchange for “free” use of the internet. And, it is great for businesses that get to reach their target audiences for less money.

Recent news makes it clear, however, that micro-targeting is not so great for democracy. Micro-targeted advertisements, which are at the heart of the most successful internet business model, allow political groups and others – including foreign countries – to tell Americans tens of thousands of different stories. Each of these messages is customized for people who are predisposed to agree with it, and unavailable for anyone else to check or verify. The net result is to increase divisiveness and disputes about “fake news” as the public’s common set of knowledge is divided into increasingly smaller pieces.

A look to the 19th century

The official portrait of President William Henry Harrison.
James Reid Lambdin/White House

The problem of politicians telling different stories to different people is not new. In 1840, William Henry Harrison’s presidential candidacy essentially invented the modern campaign. He was the first to hold mass rallies, make personal appearances and introduce catchy slogans. He realized that he could tailor his messages to different audiences, and even provide different segments of the population with different sets of facts. The people on the receiving end of his speeches would never know their counterparts in a different region were being told something different.

The solution: The traveling press corps made sure that everyone had access to all of a candidate’s speeches. Harrison and other candidates could, of course, still say whatever they want to any audience, but the press coverage made self-contradiction a political liability. Today’s solution is the same: Increase transparency. In the age of micro-targeted internet ads we need to make all ads available to all the people.

An example of ‘fake news’ in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign.

During the 2004 presidential election, transparency was essential to eliminating fake news. An ad campaign by a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” was created to discredit Democratic candidate John Kerry. In part because the public at large saw the ads, the effort was unmasked as inaccurate propaganda about Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War. By increasing the transparency around online ads, we the people can hold all politicians, parties and interest groups accountable, and return to reasonable debates based on a common set of facts.

Current solutions aren’t enough

The recent news that Russia tried to manipulate the election with micro-targeted ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter, and that advertisers can micro-target ads based on racist keywords, has led to calls for online media platforms to be more socially responsible and accountable.

The tech companies’ planned response involves hiring more people to review ads and keywords – a form of censorship. Even if each ad and its related targeting keywords could be vetted by the media companies, there are free speech issues involved in rejecting ads. Furthermore, motivated and clever advertisers are likely to find ways to reach their intended demographics.

Taking the lesson from history

As in 1840, Americans need help restoring the transparency that has been lost with changes in how campaigns reach the electorate. If media platforms were required to post all advertisements in an online archive on their websites for at least one year, then consumer groups, political watchdogs, the press and in fact any citizen would be able to monitor the ads being run.

In addition, at least for political ads, the keywords used to target the audience and the group paying for it could be included along with the ad itself. Keeping all ads on a known and publicly available page would make the ads available for all to see for a reasonable amount of time. Advertisers would be held accountable because everyone would be able to see the ad and it would not go away quickly. If we, as citizens, don’t take it upon ourselves to check the archive page, then shame on us.

It won’t solve all of the problems of micro-targeting. Advertisers and campaigns will doubtless try to circumvent whatever rules are in place. The goal is not perfect accountability, but a step toward it. Just as campaign laws require paid political ads on mass media to identify their funding sources, there should be a trail of accountability for advertisements on digital media platforms. This system is technically feasible and could be set up immediately. It is likely to reduce misinformation and curtail foreign manipulation at the same time, and could help the internet live up to its hope of improving – not hindering – democracy.

Seth Copen Goldstein, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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2 Comments on "Solving the political ad problem with transparency"

  1. Are people really are still so naive and gullible when it comes to advertising? To live in the US is to exist in a swamp of advertising that, by necessity, we ignore. When I’m online, I’m focused on the articles, and rarely notice ads. I honestly don’t recall any political ads on Facebook, etc., that could even remotely be attributed to foreign propaganda. (I do know that articles or comments that were critical of Hillary Clinton were claimed to be from “Russian trolls” — an allegation that I can say with certainty is false.)

    Current claims that “Russian ads influenced the election” leave me mystified, and not only because I never noticed anything that would apply to those claims. What ads? Either way: “It’s the policies, stupid.” It’s the message promoted by the parties and the candidates. And years of research have shown that most voting choices come down to economic issues.

    Note that Russia was a virtually non-issue throughout the campaign. It became an issue shortly after the election, when the Clinton camp jumped from the predictable “Trump stole the election” to the inexplicable “Russia stole the election.” 2017 was dedicated toward building a tale to support that claim.

  2. Media Bias Fact Check | October 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm |

    This article really wasn’t about Russia. It is about how the ads people see on the internet are coming from their search and browsing history. So, if you are a consumer of nothing but left wing news you will only get political ads that confirm your biases and vice versa. In the old days you would hear both sides ads on the radio, TV and in Newspapers. The internet ads have filtered that out. The ads on MBFC are the same. Whatever is displaying for you is coming from your search and cookie history. If you looked at new cars today you will get car ads on our site, etc. If you visited 10 pro-Trump sites you will get some political content that favors the right, etc.


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