Political Advertising on Social Media: Room for Regulations?

About the Author: Monica Nettles is a second year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Monica graduated from Arizona State University and hopes to either work on the hill or with an organization  focusing on voting rights or election law after graduating law school. 

 

Social media is one of the greatest achievements of the twenty- first century. It has provided the world an opportunity to communicate with others, share knowledge and information, and find common ground with others.  Yet, as social media usage continues to increase, so does the potential for abuse.  The 2020 presidential election has highlighted the alarming ways in which social media, particularly political advertisements, can influence and spread false information.[1]  Recently, Facebook has taken steps to mitigate political manipulation on the site through plans that “prohibit all political and issue-based advertising after the polls close on Nov. 3 for an undetermined length of time.”[2]  However, the social media site has also claimed they will not police politicians, leading many to question whether social media platforms should regulate themselves or if federal regulations on political advertisements are necessary for future elections. [3]

Supporters of regulations highlight two key issues with social media political ads: the use of misinformation and targeted advertisements.[4]  Russian government interference in the 2016 election saw an increased use of misinformation targeting polarizing issues and election security.[5]  More recently, Google has come under heavy scrutiny for declining to remove ads regarding the legitimacy and security of mail-in voting.[6]  This slow response has left many fearful of tech companies’ ability to remain non-partisan and self-regulate incorrect information.[7]  Targeted advertisements only increase these fears.  In 2016, a Trump campaign whistleblower stated the data analytics team “used personal information taken without authorization in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual U.S. voters, in order to target them with personalized political advertisement.”[8]  These profiles, also known as microtargeting, singled out susceptible groups and directed incorrect political information with little accountability from the platforms or the Government and the public at large.[9]  New polls suggest fifty- four percent of the American public support regulations in some form, stating social media should not allow any political ads, while even more, seventy- seven percent, believe companies should not gather data for targeted campaigns.[10]

While there appears to be large support for increased regulation on social media political advertisements, others argue that social media bans hurt our democracy.[11]  Citing the First Amendment freedom of speech, denouncers of regulations state that proposing bans ultimately prevent individuals voices from being heard.[12]  They argue social media “allows candidates with limited financial resources to communicate their message to specific audiences at a fraction of the cost of conventional communication channels”, and microtargeting allows them the opportunity to use time and energy targeting those who may be more interested in the topic, rather than the general audience.[13]

As elections continue in the future and our presence continues to grow online, suggestions have been proposed to modernize political advertisements on social media.  In 2019, the Honest Ads Act was introduced to enhance current regulations.[14]  This act would increase transparency requirements, bringing social media ads in line with existing requirements for newspaper, television and radio.[15]  More importantly, it would create unilateral regulation for all social media platforms, rather than permitting each platform to regulate, or permit certain advertising on their platforms.[16]  This proposal, and similar acts, set the stage for potential regulation of social media companies in future elections.

 

[1] Mike Issac, Facebook Widens Ban on Political Ads as Alarm Rises Over Election, N.Y. Times, (Oct. 22, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/technology/facebook-political-ads-ban.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Michael Baldassaro And David Carrol, It’s Time For Congress To Regulate Political Advertising On Social Media, The Hill (Oct. 7, 2020), https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/519933-its-time-for-congress-to-regulate-political-advertising-on.

[5] Russian Active Measures Campaigns And Interference In The 2016 U.S. Election, S. Rep. No. 116-XX, at 5 (2017).

[6] Isaac Stanley- Becker, Google Greenlights Ads with ‘Blatant Disinformation’ about Voting By Mail, The Wash. Post (Aug. 28, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/08/28/google-ads-mail-voting/.

[7] Id.

[8] Lata Nott, Political Advertising on Social Media Platforms, American Bar Association (June 26, 2020), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/voting-in-2020/political-advertising-on-social-media-platforms/.

[9] Ellen L. Weintraub, Don’t Abolish Political Ads on Social Media. Stop Microtargeting., The Wash. Post (Nov. 1, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/01/dont-abolish-political-ads-social-media-stop-microtargeting/.

[10] Brooke Auxier, 54% Of Americans Say Social Media Companies Shouldn’t Allow Any Political Ads, Pew Research Center, (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/24/54-of-americans-say-social-media-companies-shouldnt-allow-any-political-ads/.

[11] Niam Yayaghi, Twitter’s Ban on Political Advertisements Hurts Our Democracy, Brookings (Jan. 8, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/01/08/twitters-ban-on-political-advertisements-hurts-our-democracy/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Baldassare and Carol, supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

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