Twitter’s surprise announcement last week that it would stop selling political advertising is an inflection point in paid political ads on the internet. Twitter has made its move; pressure will build for the other internet giants, particularly Facebook, to respond.
Here’s a move that would allow political ads while deterring disinformation campaigns, restoring transparency and protecting the robust marketplace of ideas: Sell political ads, but stop the practice of microtargeting those ads.
“Microtargeting” is the sales practice of limiting the scope of an ad’s distribution to precise sets of people, such as single men between 25 and 35 who live in apartments and “like” the Washington Nationals. But just because microtargeted ads can be a good way to sell deodorant does not make them a safe way to sell candidates. It is easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey diagnosed the problem exactly right: “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and microtargeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes,” he tweeted. “All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”
But Dorsey’s prescription — killing off political ads altogether — isn’t the only way to address the problem. One of the primary ailments of the current online political advertising system is the way internet platforms sell their ads. Microtargeting by foreign and domestic actors in 2016 proved to be a potent weapon for spreading disinformation and sowing discord. There is no reason to think it will not be wielded even more effectively going forward. The microtargeting of political ads may be undermining the united character of our United States.
Such ads also undermine the main remedy that the Supreme Court has set out for lies in politics: counterspeech. Counterspeech is most possible where a broad public can hear the speech and respond.
Eliminating political-ad microtargeting would address a healthy share of the worst problems we see in online political advertising. It would:
• Enhance transparency and accountability. Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values. Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them. And ad-targeting disclosures would be much more straightforward and helpful than they are now.
• Deter and flush out disinformation. Malicious advertisers, foreign and domestic, would be less likely to say to an entire state what they have been willing to say to a small audience targeted for its susceptibility.
• Unite us. Political advertisers, who would have to appeal to a wider audience, would have incentive to avoid fueling the divisiveness that pulls us apart.
The remaining large sellers of internet advertising — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Verizon — would do well to consider voluntarily stepping back from microtargeted political ads. This would entail foregoing “custom audiences” programs and allowing express-advocacy ads and electioneering communications (ads that mention candidate names and run right before Election Day) to be targeted only by large and fully disclosed geographic areas.
A good rule of thumb could be for internet advertisers to allow targeting no more specific than one political level below the election at which the ad is directed. Want to influence the governor’s race in Kansas? Your internet ads could run across Kansas, or target individual counties, but that’s it. Running at-large for the Houston City Council? You could target the whole city or individual council districts. Presidential ads could likely be safely targeted down two levels, to the state and then to the county or congressional district level.
This would be a major departure from the way political ads are sold on the internet today. But as Twitter’s announcement highlights, nothing about the status quo is immutable. It is the product of decisions the internet companies have made. Will those companies continue to use an ad-sales technique that further divides our democracy? Internet advertising companies have created this problem. What are they willing to do to fix it?
It would be unwise, unnecessary and counterproductive for political speech to be shut out of the internet advertising market altogether. The overall advertising market has moved decisively toward the internet. Political advertising on the internet is an important part of our political discourse — perhaps the most important. I favor more political speech, not less.
The far less drastic step of forswearing the microtargeting of political ads would in essence turn back the clock about a dozen years. In the decades before Facebook began to sell targeted ads in 2007, plenty of campaigns were well-fought. Political actors who wished to communicate with voters individually or in a highly targeted fashion could still do so using their own e-mail, telephone and address lists. Similarly, anything political actors posted on their own pages would still reach their followers. Moving the internet advertising market for political ads closer to a broadcast model would not eliminate all problems in internet political advertising, but it would knock out some of those that most threaten the integrity of our discourse.
When candidates — or anyone else — try to influence voters, they should be willing to let a wide range of voters hear what they have to say, instead of a precision-targeted few. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Doe v. Reed, “without which democracy is doomed.”
Ellen L. Weintraub is chair of the Federal Election Commission. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.