Digital ad use continues to skyrocket with little oversight

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(AP Photo/Ben Margot, file)

Political advertising on the internet is an increasingly popular and powerful tool for candidates and political groups to spread their messages with little oversight.

Unlike traditional advertising mediums — TV, radio and print — online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google don’t follow Federal Election Commission regulations.

This has granted candidates, elected officials and political groups an enormous amount of access, said Kip Cassino, executive vice president of research at Borrell Associates, a media advertising research group.

“They are a perfect platform and have incredibly rich targeting,” Cassino said. “They make it so easy for a politician, or anyone else, to test an ad and run an ad. And the ads are relatively cheap.”

However, thanks to revelations surrounding Russian digital meddling during the 2016 elections, these sites, Facebook especially, have faced scrutiny for their lack of transparency and oversight.

Earlier in 2018, Facebook and Twitter started to offer more transparency on political ads used on their sites.

But analysts believe that there should be more, and it shouldn’t be left up to these platforms to self-regulate.

“There should be an independent process to see what is being done, how much was spent, what effect did it have, then they can set up the guidelines to prevent it from happening in the future,” Cassino said. “The FEC right now doesn’t have a good handle on it.”

Since 2014, there’s been a 2,539 percent growth in digital advertising, while other traditional methods have taken a dip.

Digital ads made up less than one percent of spending on political ads in 2014. During the 2018 midterms, spending on digital advertising is expected to skyrocket to 22 percent of overall political ad spending.

Political advertising online will not slow down anytime soon, Cassino said.

“I think you’ll see an excess use of digital political advertising from here till 2020,” Cassino said. “And I don’t think you’re going to see very much of a let up until then.”

While this is still the “wild west” of political advertising, Facebook and Twitter recently announced new “transparency tools” aimed at addressing the concerns surrounding political ads.

On Facebook, for any advertisement, political or otherwise, there’s a new “Info and Ads” tab on any Facebook page that allows users to see what ads that account is currently running on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.

For political and issue advertisements, a new database is available where Facebook aggregates all of its political ads with the option to search by issue, candidate name, political party, etc. For each ad, users can find out who paid for it, how much it costs, how many impressions it received and a breakdown by age, gender and location of who has viewed the ad.

Twitter now offers similar features. Through the Ad Transparency Center on the platform, users can search for an account to see its promoted tweets and ads, however, only the last seven days worth of these tweets are available. Twitter doesn’t provide information on the organization that bought the ad, how much was spent on the ad and whom the ad targets.

For political advertising, Twitter requires these advertisers to be registered with the FEC and provide an FEC ID before purchasing ads. The platform does not make this information public. Users can see the identity of the organization funding the campaign, the amount spent to promote the ad and the targeted user demographics.

Cassino said he’d like to know more about how much money is being spent on these ads, and who the funders are.

“These platforms have the capability to be completely reporting it, and the reason they aren’t now is because they don’t have to,” Cassino said. “They’re not going to do anything for free unless they have to, and it is to their advantage to not tell people what they are doing.”

If every part of digital political advertising was being reported, Cassino said people would be amazed at the efforts behind it.

Bret Schafer, a social media analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said at some point, he expects digital advertising to eventually be regulated like TV and radio political advertisements.

“It’s basically been this loophole for the last 20 years that have allowed political ads to exist in a wild west that they could not on any other medium,” Schafer said.

As far as disinformation goes, Schafer said political advertising is only a small part of the problem.

Disinformation is spread more through organic content, which is the creation of fake accounts that post and spread high volumes of damaging messages.

While fake accounts are the larger problem, regulating political ads is an easy place to start, Schafer said.

“The onus is on these platforms to create systems that are able to flag that coordinated, inauthentic behavior,” Cassino said. “Two years ago, it was just way too easy to create completely fictitious accounts and automated accounts. It is getting progressively more challenging.”

The post Digital ad use continues to skyrocket with little oversight appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

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