The Issue of Online Political Ads

In their current state, they’re not being regulated nearly enough.

Tackling the issue of online political ads will prove itself a complicated task. As we’re starting to get fully submerged into the 2020 election cycle, numerous concerns have been raised about social media platforms’ inability to duly deal with election meddling after the disaster that was 2016. A shadow that looms around the seldom much-hyped Mueller report is that Russia spared no expenses in trying to split the Democratic vote and skew the electorate heavily towards the GOP–effectively creating a clear-cut path for Donald Trump to rally rural whites around xenophobic and racist fear-mongering, all under the pretext of “draining the swamp” of DC. That feeling of economic anxiety — regardless of its merits — led to many feeling disillusioned with how the system failed them, seeing to no immediate recourse but to appoint a staunch right-wing populist into the highest office of power. That man, is Donald Trump, and he doesn’t seem terribly concerned about online political ads spreading misinformation to his own benefit–and that should make all of us terrified.

Whether aided by his own operatives or foreign actors, Donald Trump stands to gain the most from online political ads operating as they always have been. Not because his campaign can afford to spend more on them, compounding with lackluster campaign finance regulations which pretty much guarantees corporate donor supremacy, but because the GOP’s platform lies entirely in the field of fear-based political messaging — a lot of which is definitionally untrue — and that has a much easier time activating group-identity impulses to antagonize, instead of inspiring empathy for the downtrodden.

When Elizabeth Warren posted an ad on Facebook showing Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump shaking hands with a caption implicating Zuckerberg as a high-profile endorsement for the current sitting President, many were quick to rightfully applaud Warren’s actions in showing how a laissez-faire policy could easily backfire when exploited the right way. What would’ve been an ideal outcome, is if Mark Zuckerberg took a hint from the public backlash against his stance and at least pledged to take additional steps beyond the unmitigated catastrophe that was 2016–he instead chose to double down when pressed about it by Democratic congress members — most-notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Maxine Waters — and reiterated that misleading political ads while undesirable, taking them down would be opposite to Facebook’s professed support for the ideals of free speech.

Mark Zuckerberg’s perspective is adjacent to that of a predominant libertarian view in Silicon Valley that the best disinfectant for falsehood is the light of truth–the problem with that is Facebook and Twitter operate nowhere close to a platform where ideas of similar veracity are presented on an even playing field. These platforms by design float to the top their most insidious, and that makes them much more receptive to deceitful advertising. Prior to the 2018 American midterm elections, Donald Trump’s campaign ran north of 2,000 ads on the “Caravan”, seeking to animate his voter base around the threat of an imminent immigrant “invasion”. The effects of this ad campaign while hard to measure, are ones that should be grappled with on serious terms given that if Trump saw fit to lie just to prevent a Democratic majority in the House, he would spare no dirty tactics if it meant granting him another presidential term.

In a rare display of intellectual sobriety, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to do away with the headache altogether–he announced on Twitter that the platform would not allow any political or issue ads, correctly assessing that the fabric of American democracy is so fragile, that it could not afford an even bigger blow were it to let itself be exploited by malicious actors once more. The decision largely met with praise has received a mild amount of criticism by some tech journalists–namely Verge’s Makena Kelly and OneZero’s Will Oremus, who both posited that Twitter’s nuclear approach might be an oversized reaction to a problem that could easily be solved with more targeted methods. The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong also brought up the issue of what this will do to democracy in heavily-repressed regimes. On the flipside, serial Big Tech critic Kara Swisher praised the decision in a column for the New York Times, saying that it “relieves the company of a major headache that was yielding much more pain than benefit, [making it a potential] big public relations win.”

Tech companies seemingly cannot commit to a strict ad policy without receiving some form of backlash, either from the GOP who clearly see this as a threat to the status quo, or reporters who’ve a skewed perspective on the worldwide implications of such a policy. What will remain an objective fact, is that for all the good social media has done to democracy in oppressed regimes, the adverse effects it has by propping up an aristocrat of Trump’s kind are almost sure to offset any positives pretty quickly. We’ve seen it with the tariffs on China, the lack of vital support to Ukraine in pushing off Russian disregard of its own sovereignty, the recent withdrawal from Syria which undid many boons to America’s alliance with the Kurds in the region, and a whole host of other American foreign policy-related issues that make it pretty hard to make the case that America’s poison is somehow the rest of the world’s medicine.

The imperialistic angle of tech companies’ involvement in foreign territory cannot be understated . Just as TikTok is receiving massive backlash from US lawmakers regarding Chinese censorship, there’s plenty of damage that Facebook and Twitter can do by letting their virtual playground become a free-for-all where any entity can post anything at any time, without any sensible checks on their ability to do so. A potential remedy is to invoke antitrust doctrine and make sure that not only American consumers, but everyone worldwide have ample choice to pick and are not constrained to a reductionist view of the internet wherein platforms like Facebook and Google have marketed themselves so effectively overseas, that they’re the only internet millions have ever got to experience. The world deserves better than to have its main avenues of information locked away behind a morally-defective, ill-managed, dollar-studded seal of corporate greed.

If political parties could ever be entrusted with advertisement spending, they’d have to be subject to far more scrutiny than the average social media user. Given the bar has already been set low, it’s not surprising to see Twitter — and potentially others following in its footsteps — take this approach. Global democracy is far too important to gamble on platforms’ repeated pledge to do better, when we’ll often fine them pocket change in the event that they fail to comply.