Political ad spending is expected to reach an unprecedented $10 billion in the 2020 elections – including a projected record-breaking $2.8 billion in digital advertising. And despite the self-regulatory efforts by online platforms after Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the public remains in the dark about the content of many political ads in the digital sphere – and who is funding them.
Recently, in addition to a number of other regulatory changes to protect the integrity of the upcoming elections, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would not allow new ads to be placed on the platform in the final week before the November election. Zuckerberg explained that the aim of the new policy is to combat misinformation and voter suppression.
While some have applauded Facebook’s increased efforts to protect the upcoming elections, others remain concerned that it will not be enough – given that previously purchased ads will continue to run in the week leading up to the election, and that the platform has neglected to commit to fact-checking the ads.
Regardless of the efficacy of Facebook’s new policy, the changes still only apply to Facebook: the public will remain in the dark about the content of and funding behind many targeted digital political ads, such as those run on streaming platforms like Hulu.
For example, the super PAC Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) told the Federal Election Commission (FEC) earlier this year that it spent at least $450,000 on digital ads supporting Senate candidates. But according to a Campaign Legal Center (CLC) analysis, none of the ads appeared in Facebook’s archive. Nor did any ads appear in archives maintained by Google, Snapchat, or Reddit.
Instead, as explained by CLC experts in a virtual event last month, the ads likely appeared on streaming platforms like Hulu and Roku, which do not maintain ad archives.
As a result, it is likely that Facebook’s policies will have a limited impact: groups like SLF can run ads on platforms other than Facebook through election day. Even worse – those targeted ads (and their funders) will not be made public, and it is unclear the extent to which, if at all, they will be fact-checked.
The massive disclosure gap between the ads SLF reported to the FEC and those that appear in available public archives was not an isolated example.
In a report released last month, CLC identified more than a dozen super PACs or secretly-funded dark money groups that reported tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending on digital ads to the FEC, but where there was little to no record of those ads in the Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or Reddit archives.
Thus, there no way for the public to know the content of the ads, or the source of the money behind them.
Wealthy special interests often run election ads that are deliberately misleading. Voters need to know who is funding these ads so they can weigh their credibility and cast an informed vote.
Following Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, and after several contentious and highly publicized Congressional hearings, top online platforms, including Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and Reddit, created archives of the political ads placed on their websites. These archives serve to increase transparency around ad spending and targeting.
Unfortunately, these inconsistent archives have not been enough to combat outdated and inadequate disclosure laws related to digital advertising, and our elections remain vulnerable to secret influence by wealthy special interests.
Ultimately, we will need legislative reform to protect the integrity of our elections – our campaign finance laws must be updated to reflect the nature of the 21st century. A top priority for 2021 must be to establish across-the-board rules for digital ad transparency.