The Controversy Over Political Advertising Could Affect the 2018 Midterms

By Sigvart Voss Eriksen, CEO, Tapad — Digital media opened up great opportunities for marketers to use machine learning algorithms to find the best message tailored to micro-segments of users. Unsurprisingly, this appeals to political campaigns looking to leverage data signals to determine a voter’s political affiliation. 

Unfortunately, as digital media has grown in popularity with politicians, it has also become a channel that is easily exploited for manipulative causes. Twitter is under fire for hosting fake accounts created by Russians to influence American voters. At the same time, Facebook has handed more than 3,000 ads over to Congress that were bought by Russian trolls during the 2016 election campaign.

Foreign meddling in our election process is an obvious and completely unacceptable challenge. But the lessons to be learned from the chicanery of 2016 will have a wide impact across all forms of digital media as we approach the midterm elections next year.

In political advertising, the advantages of digital media and data-driven advertising are obvious, as you can engage the electorate with a personalized and relevant message. In 2008 Barack Obama’s use of relatively new social media channels earned him headlines. The campaign was well ahead of its time in using social media tools to get the word out among potential supporters.

While many were surprised by Facebook’s role in the 2008 election, eight years later, even more were shocked at the sheer power it wielded. The Trump campaign ran 175,000 variations of ads on Facebook in the run-up to election day, yielding $9 million in donations. The campaign was so dedicated to its Facebook strategy that it actually had Facebook employees embedded in its campaign offices.

Whether you agree with Trump’s politics or not, that strategy was well within the bounds of what a consumer-facing brand might do by leveraging programmatic media. The more alarming component is Russian trolls’ use of Facebook to disseminate false information. Facebook has taken steps to eliminate the problem in other elections around the globe. In September, it shut down tens of thousands of fake accounts ahead of elections in Germany. This is a move in the right direction, but unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done to the digital media ecosystem. Now, players beyond Twitter and Facebook are examining whether their platforms were misused. Outbrain is the latest to launch an internal investigation into whether it was used to deliver propaganda in 2016.

Digital advertising has always had its critics, with issues of fraud and transparency remaining at the forefront for years. Still, those conversations largely stayed within the small digital media ecosystem – the average consumer may know what a cookie is, but they likely don’t know the difference between a DSP and a DMP. Now, the aftermath of the 2016 election has thrust digital advertising into the mainstream, forcing publishers and platforms to take a long hard look at how they work with political causes, and how much automation they can offer to potential political buyers.

The 2018 midterms might be considered a crucial turning point in the U.S., but they are a major test for digital media. Facebook is taking some commendable steps to ensure transparency for voters, including its actions in Germany and a manual-review process for political ads. This may prevent campaigns in the midterms from copying the same hypertargeting playbook, but this is for the best. While tighter scrutiny may mean smaller profits for Facebook, Twitter, publishers, and the ad- and mar-tech platforms that deliver the ads, it will likely engender more trust from the voting public.

This is crucial. If digital media is viewed largely as “fake news” and the ads that appear are considered propaganda or seen as untrustworthy by voters, then they’ll have no impact. Even worse, this erosion of trust could spill over into consumer-facing advertising. It increases the likelihood that users employ ad blockers, or opt out of receiving targeted messages entirely.

In 2018, the advertising industry will have a responsibility in securing the integrity of our democratic system. Politicians and unscrupulous actors will always look to take advantage of tools that give them an edge. But if the digital media ecosystem can put stopgaps in place to prevent hypertargeting run amok, the impact will be universally positive.

(Originally posted in The Hill)