Should Social Media Giants Regulate Political Advertisements?
Today, social media is used for several purposes, including content sharing, enhancing the visibility of brands, promoting activists’ campaigns, and networking, among other activities. While these practices are within the utility sphere of online platforms, other aspects, such as political advertisements, have raised controversies. Different groups are divided on whether the practice should be regulated. Hence, analysts and scholars have delved into the matter to provide reasons for their stance on the issue. Amid controversies related to social media and a political advertisement, the existing literature reveals support for regulating political ads by both internet giants and government agencies.
Weintraub (2019) notes that social media political ads promote micro-targeting, a practice that requires stringent regulation by Internet giants, especially Facebook. By definition, micro-targeting is considered an act of selling where the scope of the ads is limited to a specific set of people based on various variables such as age and location (Weintraub, 2019). According to the author, political advertisers pay for micro-targeted ads that facilitate political misinformation and fake data across sections of a country’s population, which jeopardizes democracy. Hence, Weintraub (2019) suggests that social media companies should regulate the types of political ads uploaded on their websites, especially during campaign periods. For instance, he recommends that internet corporations should put in place regulations to ensure that political advertisements target “more than one political level below the election at which the ad is directed” (Weintraub, 2019, para. 12). While the author acknowledges that banning political ads is an alternative way of addressing micro-targeting, he believes that regulation is the most effective solution because it would facilitate transparency, accountability, and unity, while providing an open platform for political discourse.
Borgesius et al. (2018) also suggest that online political marketing that poses a threat to democracy and people’s privacy should be regulated. Unlike previous literature, Borgesius et al. (2018) believe that regulation should only be adopted where the threats of microtargeting in social media outweigh the benefits. The authors note that some forms of microtargeting are necessary, especially for people who may not possess an interest in television advertisements. In such instances, the scholars acknowledge the need for political advertisers to use microtargeting to capture the attention of specific groups of people. However, Borgesius et al. (2018) recognize that the practice can facilitate voters’ manipulation and exclusion of voter groups. Therefore, the scholars advise social media giants to regulate political ads streamed in their websites and to distinguish beneficial ads from those that pose threats to the users.
Harnik (2019) documents the opinion of a researcher who believes that political ads threaten democracy, and therefore Internet giants should take the initiative to regulate them. In the scholar’s view, corporations like Facebook gather critical information about their users, including age and demography, which is shared with marketers for ads. Therefore, he believes that political advertisers can easily use such data to target groups of people that are receptive to unverified and false information (Harnik, 2019). Given that internet firms, in particular Facebook, do not indulge in fact-checking, the researcher believes that political ads can easily be used to jeopardize democracy, primarily when they are intended to manipulate voters. The scholar gives an example of the 2016 pro-Trumps ads on Facebook, which targeted African-Americans with the aim of discouraging them from voting (Harnik, 2019). Under those premises, Harnik (2019) believes that some political ads are manipulative and should be regulated by internet companies.
In alignment with the existing literature, Harnik (2019) also believes that social media has power over a country’s economy, society, and democracy, and thus, political content posted in such platforms should be regulated. In particular, the author notes that Facebook has the potential for immense influence on politics because it gives the public and politicians a megaphone to express themselves (Harnik, 2019). With such power, the author believes that the platform can easily be exploited to spread false and misleading political claims, which are accessible to millions of people across the world. Harnik (2019) adds that such information can lead to political division among citizens and eventually compromise the unity that may exist in a country. As a contingency plan against such adversities, Harnik concludes that social media should either hold political advertisers accountable for their ads or implement an effective regulatory oversight over political ads that are posted on their websites.
While Kovach (2017) conforms with previous literature on the need for social media giants to regulate political ads, the author avers that such regulation may not be enough to contend with the severe threats that ads streamed on the networks pose to a country’s political integrity. Hence, the scholar deems it necessary for government agencies and communication authorities, such as the Federal Election Commission and the Congress, to intervene in online political advertising. In particular, Kovach (2017) believes that political advertising standards that regulate television, radio and print media should also apply to social media advertisements. For instance, he recommends Facebook pages to provide information on parties that pay for political ads to facilitate transparency on the messages relayed to members of the public.
Kovach (2017) asserts that in addition to indulging in self-regulation, internet corporations should be subjected to external standards since many of them are not just platforms for content sharing but key players in political influence. However, the author notes that for the recommended solution to work effectively, Google, Facebook, and other internet firms should be willing to co-operate with external regulators. Contrarily, Relman (2019) believes that social media giants should not regulate advertisements. Instead, he notes that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) should regulate how money is raised and spent in elections to counter the abuse of online political ads (Relman, 2019). Although the FEC has been in place for a while, the author believes it fails to function fully to enhance electoral integrity. Relman (2019) recommends that management establish rules to govern the type of advertisements uploaded by political marketers on social media networks.
Overall, the above literature supports social media giants’ regulation of political ads. Researchers and political analysts believe that online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are often exploited for micro-targeting and relaying misleading information. The scholars are particularly concerned about political ads posted during election periods, which often compromise election integrity. Therefore, they find it essential for internet providers to regulate ads posted on their networks. In addition to self-regulating, other researchers believe that government agencies should intervene in practice. Besides, the standards that govern other broadcasting mediums should be incorporated into online platforms.
Borgesius, F., Moller, J., Kruikemeier, S., Fathaigh, R., Irion, K., … & Vreese, C. (2018). Online political microtargeting: promises and threats for democracy. Utrecht Law Review, 14(1), 82-96.
Kovach, S. (2017, September 30). When it comes to political ads, it’s time for Facebook and Google to be held to the same standards as ABC and CBS. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/why-political-ads-should-be-regulated-online-2017-9?IR=T
Relman, E. (2019, April 11). Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are making massive policy decisions that could change U.S. elections. The FEC should be doing this instead. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.pulselive.co.ke/bi/politics/tech-companies-like-facebook-and-twitter-are-making-massive-policy-decisions-that/cglpnpw
Harnik, A. (2019, November, 1). The Guardian view on political advertising: Time to regulate it, Mr Zuckerberg. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/01/the-guardian-view-on-political-advertising-time-to-regulate-it-mr-zuckerberg
Weintraub, E. (2019, November 2). Don’t abolish political ads on social media. Stop microtargeting. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/01/dont-abolish-political-ads-social-media-stop-microtargeting/
Harnik, A. (2019, November 7). Should Facebook and other social media regulate political ads: Pro/Con. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/facebook-twitter-political-ads-fact-checking-ban-20191107.html