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It’s time to ban all political ad targeting . . . everywhere

Cartogram by Mark E. J. Newman, U. Mich.

Google will stop targeting political ads based on behavior. That’s a start. I call on every platform to end all targeted political ads (except by geography) — and for Congress to make this the law.

Here’s what happened with political ads so far in 2019:

  • Twitter banned all political ads.
  • Google just announced that for election ads, the only targeting it will continue to allow is by age, gender, adjacency to content, and location (at the postal code level).
  • After relaxing its fact-checking of political ads, a Facebook spokesman said “we are looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads,” leaving the door open to possible restrictions.

I called for Facebook to end ad targeting (except for geographic) in my recent Boston Globe op-ed, and now I want to go further.

Why political ad targeting is a problem

You may imagine that the solution is to ban all political ads, as Twitter did. That’s too extreme. Candidates and parties deserve the chance to make their cases. While Twitter, as a private company, has the right to make any policy it wants, a blanket ban on all political advertising would violate the First Amendment. Of all the people to whom freedom of speech applies, candidates are among the most important.

But if we don’t ban ads outright, why ban targeting? Because everyone should see what political advertisers are doing. I don’t want political advertisers showing one message to Democrats and another to Republicans, or one to men and another to women, or one to people who clicked on a website about abortion and another to those who visited a site about guns.

(Geographical targeting is an obvious exception. People in Nebraska don’t need to see an ad from a candidate in Maine; that’s just wasteful and annoying.)

If we ban political ad targeting:

  • Candidates will run a limited collection of ad formats, and watchdogs and competitors can check, evaluate, or respond to all of them.
  • Lies in ads will decrease, since a candidate won’t be able to tell different stories to different voters.
  • Candidates will focus on messages that resonate with the largest collection of voters, which is healthy for democracy.

A targeting ban is broader than you think

Here’s what I’m envisioning for this targeting ban:

  • No targeting allowed, except by geography. This means even Google’s new policy doesn’t go far enough, since it still allows targeting by age, gender, or proximity to content.
  • Applies to all media and social platforms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Bing, TikTok, YouTube, and anything else you can think of.
  • Applies to all media companies.
  • Applies to all ad networks. Most of the ads you see, including on media sites, are placed by ad networks based on behavioral information. If we don’t include ad networks, there’s a huge loophole in the ban.
  • Applies to all political advertisers. (Google’s ban is specifically for election ads.) So this would apply to political parties, PACs, advocacy groups, and issue advertisers as well — anything intended to influence how voters vote.
  • Applies to email as well. Targeted email is another environment where secret lies intended for specific groups will flourish. Shut it down. Political email lists shouldn’t be targeted based on personal data.

As it stands now, any remaining platform that allows targeted political ads has an advantage. Advertisers who can’t target on Twitter and Google are just going to go to Facebook and ad networks.

Moves like Google’s are intended to stave off legislation — “We got this, stand down.” But until the ban is on all digital ad formats in all platforms, deception will rule. The ban on targeting must be total. Which means it must be a federal law.

I’m betting you think I’ve gone too far. Fine. What’s your argument for why politicians should be able to sneakily tell different stories to different voters?

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  1. Yes I think you go too far Josh. A disingenuous politician (that’s redundant) will remain disingenuous regardless of how you try to muzzle them. Furthermore, the whole point of targeted advertising (by any advertiser, not just politicians) is context and relevance. To continue with your example, if I’m clicking on a Website about abortion, it would be more contextually relevant for me to see an ad about a candidates position on a woman’s right to choose, rather than an ad about that candidate’s position on gun control or taxes. And it would be completely irrelevant to see an ad about healthcare reform while I’m visiting Bass Pro’s Website to research a new deer rifle. As for facebook ads, I believe that the 1st Amendment is absolute and Zuck’s position on this is correct. We (advertisers, politicians, and consumers/citizens) either have free speech or we don’t. Filtering of any kind introduces bias whether that bias is intended or not. If you’re trying to eliminate lies and half-truths in political ads, the only way to do that effectively is to ban all political advertising, which would be unconstitutional. Obviously hate speech should never be tolerated but you didn’t mention that. Bottom line: Politicians have fibbed their way into office since the beginning of civilized society. Digital advertising is just the modern day megaphone that they can point in any direction they choose.

    1. Your analogy of a modern day megaphone is interesting but flawed. Pre-digital audiences COULD self select to be targeted by attending an event, but anyone else could choose to or inadvertently receive the messages as well. With digital advertising we really need a solution that protects people from only receiving messages/ads that enforce their beliefs/opinions/knowledge or lack thereof. It might even improve the civility of the advertisers and reduce the animosity caused by their vicious attacks on non-supporters. Hopefully more of us would look into the “facts” we disagree with, and less fake news would succeed in deepening the divisions among us. Emotional responses are so much easier to manipulate than fact-based rational choices.

      1. I’ll have to respectfully disagree with most of that. We self select every day. We choose which news programs to watch. We choose which newspapers to read. We choose which facebook groups and pages to join or follow. We choose which brands win our wallet share. All of these decisions we make every day based on our behaviors, attitudes, and value systems. These decisions determine how advertisers target us every day. Confirmation bias will always be a phenomenon that plays a role in how citizens/consumers interpret what they read and hear. Surely we can’t expect the very producers of the propaganda to confront that problem. It seems like a fool’s errand to me. I do share your hope that more of us would look into the “facts”, and also the long-term consequences of the policies that our politicians want to implement. If all of us voted on facts rather than emotions, we’d have a very different government today. Unfortunately, that has never been the case, and it never will be. We are after all, only human.

        1. I respectfully and sadly agree. Hope springs eternal when you have grandchildren. Modern psychology keeps revealing just how flawed our “thinking” is; I keep hoping for the breakthroughs that will enable us to survive as a species uncontrolled by the AI devices we are creating. For myself, I intend to feed a tree.

  2. It will never happen. Even Twitter who claims to block political ads, actually still allows them. You will be unable to fight the likes of Google.

    Remember : Google can make you disappear from the face of the earth if they want to.