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There could be a simple solution to Facebook’s political ad woes

David Carroll, professor and star of the Netflix doc ‘The Great Hack,’ argues that microtargeted political ads pervert the democratic process. What if Facebook just disabled them?

There could be a simple solution to Facebook’s political ad woes
David Carroll [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Mark Zuckerberg has been defiant about his decision to continue selling political ads on Facebook, even ones that feature flatly false statements by politicians.

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But according to professor and digital rights advocate David Carroll, Zuckerberg’s arguments—that political ads are expressions of free speech that the public should have access to—don’t hold up.

Carroll, who is best known for suing Trump-connected political data firm Cambridge Analytica, which was chronicled in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, argues that a massive social network that microtargets ads at narrowly defined groups of people shouldn’t be a major distributor of political information. That’s because if people only see advertisements focused just on the issues that get them the most riled up, they can’t have an informed conversation with their neighbors.

Here’s how microtargeting works: Campaigns come to Facebook and ask the company to display a very specific and finely crafted message (in text, graphics, GIFs, or video) to a narrowly defined segment of voters that the campaign believes will be receptive to the idea. Carroll believes that this feature is undemocratic because it portrays the issues of the election using different facts for different people.

“The purpose of democracy is that communities can debate issues among themselves, and if two neighbors are seeing entirely different political messaging that has been targeted to them based on their commercial data and is mixed with their political inferences, they can’t even have a reasoned debate,” he said in a panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City last week.

That gets even dicier when some of the messages contain “alternative facts,” which are perfectly acceptable under Facebook’s rules. Zuckerberg has said that Facebook users should debate among themselves to expose any misinformation in political ads. “But if the false ads are being targeted to only select voters that they can predict won’t challenge them and are not seen by the ones that would challenge them, then that argument falls apart,” Carroll said.

When you look at the ads produced by the Trump campaign—by far the biggest buyer of Facebook political ads—you can see why this might be an issue. The campaign has run hundreds of ads claiming that Democrats are socialists who want open borders. But it’s unlikely that Democrats who might be able to push back against that information are even seeing those ads.

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The number of false ads, or half-false ads, may increase as we approach the election. Next year, the Trump campaign is likely to barrage female voters in the suburbs of swing states with ads with messages like “Elizabeth Warren will send you to a Democratic Socialist Death Panel if you get sick.”

Such truth-stretching scare ads are insidious because even when they don’t ring true, they can, little by little, plant a seed of fear, veteran GOP consultant Rick Wilson told me after he spoke on a panel focused on the 2020 election at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. As election day nears, the voter, even if skeptical, may finally think, “But what if it’s true?” and act on that fear in the voting booth. The only way to counteract scare ads is with an immediate and proportional barrage of ads rebutting them, Wilson said. Zuckerberg’s idea that the same rebuttal might happen organically among Facebook users seems unlikely.

The idea of banning political ads outright is a fraught one. Facebook likely won’t stop selling political ads without enormous pressure from Facebook users, the public, and Facebook’s own employees, the latter of which has already spoken out. Banning political ads, as Twitter has now done, also opens up questions about what exactly constitutes a political ad.

But there’s another alternative: David Carroll suggested that Facebook might continue selling political ads but stop microtargeting them to finely sliced groups. Instead, he proposed, just show the same ones to everyone in a particular community.

What might that look like? Targeting all Republican voters in a particular state or county might be allowed, but not the practice of customizing a target audience based on the characteristics of voters who have voted for the candidate or cause in past elections.

In fact, Facebook policy chief Nick Clegg told Politico that the company is now considering restricting politicians’ use of “highly detailed demographic and personal data” to target ads. If more people of all political stripes see the same ads, it might at least help establish the common set of questions needed to start any kind of real debate.

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