How can, and how should, online political ads be used to mobilize voters? What are the challenges posed by regulating these types of ads, compared to more traditional TV ads? What roles should both tech platforms and political campaigns play in addressing misinformation?
These are just a few of the ethical questions addressed in a new report co-authored by Fordham’s Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, an associate professor of communication and media studies.
For the report, “Digital Political Ethics: Aligning Principles with Practice,” Baldwin-Philippi worked with Leticia Bode of Georgetown University, Daniel Kreiss of the University of North Carolina, and Adam Sheingate of Johns Hopkins University. The report was published through the University of North Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. The team interviewed a group of political campaign workers and consultants from both major parties, as well as employees of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to identify some areas of concern and compile best practices for digital advertising.
Baldwin-Philippi said all the players had more issues in common than she had thought. Getting people out to vote was paramount for almost everyone, she said.
“I was surprised by the points of agreement across parties,” Baldwin-Philippi said. “I was surprised by their shared concern for [voter] participation above all else.”
Both of the campaigns agreed that targeted ads, such as ones directed at women about issues they care about or ones directed at residents of a particular state, help to increase participation. While members of the public and media express concern over this practice of “micro-targeting” potential voters and some tech companies have established barriers to doing so, Baldwin-Philippi said that she thought it was interesting how the campaigns believed this helped increase voter turnout.
Throughout their conversations with 16 participants, which included phone interviews and a two-day workshop, four main ethical principles came to light: prioritizing democratic participation, protecting election integrity, increasing transparency, and ensuring fairness and consistency.
One of the biggest areas of agreement was that the political participants felt that the platforms’ rules weren’t always well-defined, or sometimes were applied inconsistently, Baldwin-Philippi said. The rules weren’t necessarily biased against one party or the other, she said, but they weren’t applied to everyone across the board, which resulted in some “unfairness,” according to the campaign workers who participated.
“If anything, the bias there that staffers felt was that bigger campaigns had the ear of more people and people in higher positions so that they could get their stuff approved, or put back up, or get an opponent’s stuff taken down much easier,” she said.
The report’s recommendations for the technology platforms included doing more to identify misinformation; having set, consistent, well-explained rules for paid and organic content; and reviewing their policies and procedures to see if they unfairly benefit well-funded or incumbent campaigns over others. The report’s recommendations were made public through the center’s Digital Politics Research Group, aimed at journalists in particular for the 2020 campaign coverage, as well as for the public to learn about digital advertising best practices.
For political campaigns, the report recommended that they stop using hacked or stolen materials; discourage ethically dubious practices and behaviors; and be more transparent in their advertising.
Baldwin-Philippi acknowledged that some of these would be harder to enforce.
“You’re fundamentally asking people to regulate themselves in some way,” she said.
Some of the action items, such as labeling what is a paid advertisement versus an organic post, can be done by the platforms. However, there needs to be federal regulation to get them to take that step, Baldwin-Philippi said.
“The problem is that the tech firms don’t have any particular incentive to do this outside of—it would be good for the world,” she said. “Thus far that has not been demonstrated to be an effective carrot or stick for them.”
One of the biggest issues with digital advertising, the report found, was that because it’s cheaper, there’s so much more of it and it’s not as regulated as television ads, which have to follow rules set by the Federal Communications Commission.
“One thing that’s different is just the scale—the cheapness means that the scale can be huge, so you can make a bunch of different ads for cheap,” she said. “That changes things.”
Television ads are also cataloged so journalists, political opponents, and the public can look them up, while in the social media world that’s not always the case, according to Baldwin-Philippi.
“The Facebook transparency database that theoretically ‘has all the ads,’ doesn’t have all the ads. So regulating that and actually forcing them to have all of the ads and making them searchable, that would solve that problem,” she said, adding that this was one of the concerns that got raised the most.
One of the solutions to that, which could be accepted on a bipartisan basis, according to Baldwin-Philippi, would be to apply some of the FCC rules to the digital space.
“I actually think it would be less political, even, to say, ‘we’re using the FCC laws and we’re moving them over here,’ and maybe we’ll make one [more rule]—making the content publicly easy to find. That would make it a pretty simple thing,” she said.