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Opinion | Four ways to fix the problem of political advertising from social media – without banning it

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To prevent this from happening, platforms could end the practice of allowing advertisers to fully integrate external data into their ad systems. The downside is that, in addition to the troubling tools, doing so would eliminate good use of those tools.

Alternatively, platforms could require political advertisers to move from data opacity to data transparency by only allowing certain types of verified targeting lists, such as lists of all registered voters of a particular party in a particular district. Greater transparency would incentivize best practice, and platforms could take steps to review audience lists and conduct spot checks to improve enforcement and accountability.

Second, it should not be made easy for advertisers to undermine the platforms’ own stated goals, be it Facebook’s desire for social cohesion or Twitter’s goal of healthy discourse. Just as all major platform companies have voluntarily implemented political advertising verification processes and created political digital advertising archives, instead of banning political advertising, they can place further restrictions on the categories political advertisers can target (such as geographic region, interests, ideology, race and ethnicity or gender). Platforms could review their existing categories to ensure they are not targeting that undermines their missions, circumvents community standards, or is likely to encourage illegal activity.

Third, platforms should introduce product solutions that facilitate counter-speech. For example, if a platform publishes a political ad in its ad archive, it could allow verified competing campaigns to serve ads for the exact same audience. This approach would be a privacy-protecting way to ensure that there is an opportunity for counter-argument, as platforms could enable the functionality without passing on target group details or strategic information to competing campaigns.

After all, companies repeatedly state that political advertising does not have a significant impact on their bottom line. If so, instead of banning political advertising, they should get to the heart of their political advertising money and commit to donating all political advertising proceeds to nonprofits and researchers focused on the integrity of elections. Or, invest that money directly into developing and improving their elective integrity products.

In the face of intense pressure from the press, activists, and policymakers, technology platforms should resist blunt solutions that severely limit the expression of those competing for public office and contesting public issues. Blanket bans on political advertising are particularly harmful to those who already have large audiences and challengers to established elites. By making changes that put targeting practices in the spotlight, we can address some of the worst abuses of political advertising technology while leaving room for the expression of opinion that is essential to a robust democracy.

Daniel Kreiss is a senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina and an Associate Professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Matt Perault is Director of the Center for Science & Technology Policy at Duke University and was previously Director of Public Policy at Facebook.

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