How a Digital-Ad Crackdown Will Change Political Campaigns

As internet platforms, Congress, and the FEC all look to enforce transparency for online political ads, campaigns and digital ad-sellers prepare to adapt.

AP Photo/Ben Margot
Oct. 2, 2017, 8 p.m.

As digital platforms and the government look to clamp down on covert campaign ads fueled by foreign funds, domestic political campaigns and ad-sellers are bracing for significant changes to their own operations.

Facebook’s recent promise to give its users greater insight into the political ads seen on their news feeds was driven by new revelations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The eventual level of disruption caused by new transparency requirements will depend on whether they’re driven by self-regulation from the online platforms themselves—or forced through regulation from Congress or the Federal Election Commission.

Either way, any increase in transparency for digital ads—which, unlike television or radio, are now exempted from FEC oversight—is expected to affect the way those ads are purchased and deployed. While some operatives are cautiously optimistic that increased transparency will prevent campaigns and PACs from running false or offensive digital ads, many also believe the changes will hobble a campaign’s rapid-response capability and give rivals greater insight into its political strategy.

“Whenever you can be in secret, obviously, you have an advantage from an organizational standpoint,” said one digital-ad-buyer familiar with the Trump campaign’s digital operations last cycle. “One thing that would’ve had a big difference—Clinton could’ve seen how much [the Trump campaign was] focusing on infrastructure in Ohio and they could’ve said, ‘Oh shit, we need to do this also.’ And it might have had an effect.”

Facebook revealed last month that a secretive Kremlin-linked company spent approximately $100,000 for over 3,000 targeted political ads on the social-media platform between 2015 and 2017. Many of the ads were supportive of the Trump campaign, while others were designed to magnify the more divisive issues in American politics.

In an apparent bid to stave off federal scrutiny, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said last month the company would turn over the ads to Congress, require all Facebook pages to disclose their political-ad purchases, and allow users to examine other political ads commissioned by those pages. Many observers expect Google, Twitter, and other high-profile digital platforms to soon enact similar measures.

But that’s only if the federal government doesn’t get there first. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar are now circulating draft legislation that would require large-scale digital platforms to publicly disclose all politically related ad purchases totaling over $10,000. While the legislation is ostensibly designed to stave off future foreign interference, Warner admits the bill will likely also affect the way domestic political actors operate in the digital arena.

“There would be, I think, a self-regulatory effect that will come about if you know that if you’re going to call someone something that is totally unfounded, it would have to stand the scrutiny of actually being examined,” Warner told National Journal, adding that increasing accountability and preventing false or offensive content is “one of the main goals” of the legislation.

But while new transparency requirements could check a political operative’s worst impulses, they may also prevent the pursuit of fast-paced and creative digital-ad campaigns. Amanda Bloom, the director of advertising at Bask Digital Media, said campaigns will likely feel hamstrung even if Congress gives online platforms the space to self-regulate.

“If the ads have to go through more approval and more regulation within these platforms, then when news breaks and we need to run an ad ASAP and we need it live on Facebook right now, it’s not going to be live in 15 minutes; it’s going to be live in a day,” she said. “And then we just missed our window, and we missed our opportunity.”

The digital-ad-buyer familiar with the Trump campaign’s strategy made a similar point: “Some people are going to be worried that it takes away the advantage when you get to do something unique. Maybe you come up with a good idea and you run it. And the other team just monitors what you do, and within two minutes they put up an ad and just counter it.”

The FEC may also be gearing up to act, much to the horror of the digital-advertising industry. A recent Axios story suggested the commission is considering a blanket ban on programmatic ad-buying, which allows campaigns and PACs to automate digital-ad placement rather than picking up the phone for each purchase. Bloom said that kind of prohibition would have a huge impact on any campaign’s digital strategy. “Banning using technology to place advertising in the political sphere would be absolutely catastrophic,” she said, adding that there “would be no possibility of getting any type of scale.”

But most observers believe the FEC—which is known for pervasive political gridlock—is unlikely to act without a clear direction from Congress. That makes federal legislation or platform self-regulation the two most likely avenues for increased online transparency. Andy Yates, the cofounder and senior partner of political-ad firm Red Dome Group, doesn’t expect either to have much impact on the campaigns themselves, which typically run digital ads through a gauntlet of lawyers. But he said that new requirements may be a “challenge” for PACs and other independent-expenditure groups “that want to engage in more inflammatory messaging that maybe they don’t want to own.

“That could be a good thing if they have to step up and own some of this inflammatory messaging—whether they think about it more before they put it out there,” Yates added.

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