By Sean Jackson
Facebook and Google are considering new rules that ban the use of micro-targeting of political ads. Political advertisements have recently been met with criticism over giving candidates the ability to display specific messages to small sections of the electorate.
Some critics have suggested that micro-targeting could damage political norms by allowing candidates to showcase different policy platforms to different demographics to garner votes.
Recently the chair of the U.S. Federal Elections Commission, Ellen Weintraub, called on Facebook and other social media platforms to cease the practice stating, “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.”
In late October, hundreds of Facebook employees wrote an open letter to the social media giant’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, asking for limits on micro-targeting, and changes towards how the company handles political advertisements.
“The risk with allowing this is that it’s hard for people in the electorate to participate in the ‘public scrutiny’ that we’re saying comes along with political speech,” the letter said. “These ads are often so micro-targeted that the conversations on our platforms are much more siloed than on other platforms. Currently we restrict targeting for housing and education and credit verticals due to a history of discrimination. We should extend similar restrictions to political advertising.”
Facebook has not openly endorsed the idea of changing its political advertisement policy, but on Tuesday November 5th, NBC News reported that Zuckerberg was considering limiting the ability for campaigns to micro-target small and potentially vulnerable populations.
Google has also been considering changing their own political ad policy according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, citing speculation within the company that “changes could be related to what type of audience targeting the company allows ad buyers to place.”
“Misinformation affects us all,” the open letter to Mark Zuckerberg reads. “Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
The Open Knowledge Foundation, which has been an advocate for changes to both Google and Facebook, welcome this as a step in the right direction. Chief executive of the organization, Catherine Stihler said, “It’s encouraging that online giants are starting to take their responsibilities seriously and recognizing the need to act to stop the spread of disinformation. But this can’t just be left to social media platforms to take action by themselves - our analogue electoral laws need to catch up with the digital age and ensure we build a fair, free, and open future.”
While there is currently debate over the future of online political advertisements, Weintraub believes that eliminating them entirely would not be a smart idea, “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.”
Although there is speculation that both Facebook and Google are planning on changing their advertising policies, it is not certain that changes will be made before the UK general elections on December 12th, or the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.