As someone who feels very deeply about individual rights and freedoms, I don’t know how I feel about this. I am also someone who believes in democracy and free speech, so when I heard that Washington State is no longer allowing local election advertisements, I really had to stop and think about this one. In general, I think election ads are completely ridiculous. They don’t typically get to the heart of the individual’s platform, but rather they end up outlining all that’s wrong with the other person or party’s platform. At times, it’s a full-on attack.
That side of me thinks – great, no more election ads. But the side of me that also believes that people have the right to make decisions on their own, feels that maybe this is a bit too much. That said, there’s also the elephant in the room that is Facebook. It’s been recently discovered that maybe they were giving away more of your data than we had originally thought. Perhaps then, this isn’t a bad thing. While I have high hopes that this will force people to learn more about the people who are running in the elections, but I also think that people are inherently lazy. They won’t go online and research the platforms to be able to make informed decisions. That’s the way it is.
Getting back to Washington State – the Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, recently accused Google and Facebook of shielding the public from information about who is buying the ads that they see. In fact, Ferguson is indicating that both companies had failed to adhere to Washington States’ campaign finance laws. And, I mean, it would seem that way. In response, Google announced via an AdWords policy update that it would suspend all concerning ballot measures and candidates for both local and state elections.
New requirements from the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) require that “information regarding political advertising or electioneering communications must be made available”. Again, this kind of makes sense. These records are supposed to be kept for a minimum of three years after the election takes place. That means, from now on, digital communication platforms like Google and Facebook need to be able to provide a description of the audiences and geographic locations that are being targeted. In addition, they have to be able to provide the complete number of impressions advertisements generate.
Google seems to be erring on the side of caution with this one. They typically don’t pause political ads within a state but in the wake of the allegations that the 2016 presidential election was sabotaged, and the new GDPR’s rules around transparency and user privacy, it would seem that Google is choosing to adapt. Or are they giving in? Google hasn’t made a final decision when it comes to what they’re going to do. Right now, they’re putting the ads on hold and will make a final determination later.
What’s interesting is that Facebook hasn’t made any decisions on what they’re going to do, but they have promised to start clearly labeling political ads and who is paying for them. I think that makes sense. If candidate x has paid for an ad where they’re attacking candidate y, I want to know. It helps me understand where the information is coming from and how legitimate the information actually is. I am certainly interested to see how this shakes out in the future as I think it’s important for tech giants (like Google and Facebook) to take steps that don’t enable any kind of activity that could skew an election result.