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6 suggestions to help fix political advertising on social media

The Drum 09 Jun 2020 12:30
Some ideas to help fix political advertising on social media

In recent years, the impact of misinformation spread through political adverts running on social media platforms has caused a crisis in American and European democratic systems. While many recognise the problem, few ideas have surfaced for how to fix it. Publicis Media's head of strategy, Shann Biglione, offers some ideas.

Part of my job is to recommend where and what ads to buy. As a media strategist, I’ve always looked at paid social media as a great marketing opportunity. But as a concerned citizen, I’ve seen many of these platforms weaponized at our expense.

In response, Twitter took the extreme measure of simply banning all political ads. I commend them for at least acknowledging the issue and owning that responsibility. But the reality is that advertising does play a role and that suppressing it will also disproportionately impact political messages that don’t have natural reach. It concentrates power to the headliners and gives more power to highly polarizing content that is more likely to be engaged with. But political ads shouldn’t be seen as a binary issue, to be allowed to flourish unregulated or be banned outright. Better safeguards are critical.

One of the issues that plagued the 2016 US presidential and midterm elections was the spread of false information and the weaponization of the information ecosystem by foreign entities. Typically, this was the result of ’dark’ investments not directly related to the candidate (even if they sometimes involved collusion). Allowing only candidate-bought and candidate-approved messages would be a simple step to combat this. No third parties allowed. Basically, remove the bozos.

There is still debate in the ad community whether precision targeting – where messages are tightly crafted for individual issues – really works or not. But the reality is that it’s what the industry still swears by, and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal we can all agree that precautionary measures are worth it. There is a simple way around it: just don’t allow audience targeting for political campaigns. Period. If you want to get your message out there, it should be seen by everybody and not allow campaigns to twist messages around single issues. Politicians will be representing their entire constituency; their messages should be seen by all.

Easy: Set up a publicly accessible list of all ads distributed

Hard: Flag all ads with a link to a fact check review, with links to facts related to the points raised in the ad

On a side note, there’s been a lot of debate around having a government-approved body to do this. My contention here is that while freedom of speech isn’t really at stake here (it’s a flag, not censorship), ultimately the spirit of the First Amendment is about limiting the government’s influence on what people say. What if a government has too much power? Couldn’t this be used against the intent of the policy? Globally it would force the social platforms to decide which government they are comfortable operating with, based on their own assessment of a state’s trustworthiness – much worse outcome.

This is a corollary/complement to the above suggestion, if not an alternative. Social media ads have a useful feature that most ads don’t: they can be commented on. What if we created a fact check account that directly provides information in the comments, pinned up on top? This allows the community to see it easily, and by definition it would be open to commentary and criticism. Generally speaking, it would feel less prescriptive and more constructive, while playing to the strengths of these platforms.

To American audiences, ad breaks can feel like a battlefield, with viewers caught in the crossfire. Seriously, as a new kid here, it’s pretty intense. And that sensation is worse by several orders of magnitude on social media. If it’s part of the game, fine. But can we throw some jujitsu moves, use the opponent’s force and make it part of the solution? A way to improve this could be to allow a response from each candidate on attack ads. Give them a chance (and the right) to provide a response, whether it’s a flagged post in the comments or, maybe, via a specially designed carousel format for these ads. Using their budget to provide their opponents oxygen would surely give aggressive campaigns pause and potentially disrupt the use of disingenous or untrue claims. It would bring a necessary nuance. Make the ad platform a place for debate, not a shooting gallery.

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