As the 2020 Presidential election approaches and the Democratic debates continue, an issue that has come under fire from both sides of the aisle has been political advertising with many endorsing the possible censorship and ban of digital political ads by major tech companies such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Many claim that these ads have divided the United States politically, spreading misinformation and fueling hatred between opposing parties. Still, despite the validity of some of these claims, digital political ads are a vital part of our democracy and a net positive in today’s technology-driven age, however, should be regulated to address their downfalls.
The primary reason many have proposed potentially banning digital political ads outright is the role these ads have played had in polarizing voters by spreading misinformation. Many believe digital political ads can polarize voters by presenting them content that is meant to induce anger towards and/or fear of the opposition party. Many point to some of President Trump’s 2016 Facebook election ads regarding immigration which used fear-inducing language to persuade voters and divide the country as just one example of the polarization caused by political ads.
Political ads have also often been found to spread false claims or claims that are grossly misrepresentative of the facts. Whether it’s ads saying Republican Senator Lindsey Graham endorsed the Green New Deal or the Chinese government using Facebook and Twitter to interfere and sow political discord in Hong Kong, misinformation has been used countless times to manipulate people towards one way or another regardless of the validity of the information being presented.
These drawbacks of digital political ads are a serious concern for many and have led to numerous proposals looking to ban digital political ads on many social media platforms. Banning them, however, is not necessarily the most beneficial option and may have numerous unintended consequences. Namely, hurting our current form of democracy.
Digital political ads remain essential in helping candidates reach a broader spectrum of voters and in turn, presenting voters a more diverse set of candidates. Relatively, digital political ads are far cheaper than running an ad on television, the radio, or in a newspaper and in turn, allows candidates to communicate their views and stances to a much larger audience. A recent study found that in comparison to television ads, Facebook ads featured a more diverse set of candidates, especially so for lesser-known down-ballot and challenger candidates. Silencing or severely limiting digital advertising would directly affect the state of our democracy, stripping many candidates, particularly the lesser-known ones, from the ability to communicate their ideas and reach a larger audience.
In today’s digitalized age, digital political advertising may increase voter interest and turnout as well by engaging voters who may have previously been uninformed on the upcoming election. A recent paper written by Katherine Haenschen, a professor at Virginia Tech, found that internet advertisements and voting reminders were found to significantly increase voter turnout in Dallas elections, especially among Millennial voters. While further research is needed to establish a clear link between voter turnout and digital advertising, it seems that this form of advertising is only engaging and educating more people about upcoming elections and candidates, which in the immediate future, will only encourage more people to vote. Banning this form of advertising may limit voter turnout and lead to further polarization in the elections as fewer people are engaged in politics on issues that matter to them, allowing hard-core partisans to continue to dominate.
Given both the benefits and drawbacks of digital political ads, it is important to identify the best way to tackle this issue in a way that takes advantage of the benefits of this form of advertising, while limiting the drawbacks. This starts with identifying the primary problem with digital political ads and the reason why digital political ads are dividing the nation on politics.
The problem with digital political ads isn’t necessarily their existence, but the content found in many of them. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research regarding the relationship between the internet and polarization found that Americans who spend more time online do not necessarily polarize faster, finding no such connection between online activity and polarization. As such, banning digital political ads wouldn’t necessarily help sow the divide between political parties in the United States. Instead, the government should look to regulate this form of advertising in a way that prevents the spread of misinformation, but also ensure candidates can reach voters.
One way the government could do so is by limiting the scope of digital ad targeting, forcing political campaigns to show the same digital ad to a larger scope of voters that will hold campaigns in check and accountable for the ads they run, rather than a small portion of the population that they intend to polarize and mobilize. Another solution involves presenting users counter speech and allowing opposition candidates to reach the same audience to present voters a multitude of candidates and granting them more choice during election time. Finally, the government or platforms should place larger and stricter restrictions on the spread of misinformation. Presently, there are clear rules in place that prevent campaigns from committing voter fraud by lying about election dates or directly inciting violence. Placing similar rules and punishments for campaigns to spread false information would force campaigns to be careful about what they publish and incentivize opposition campaigns to keep each other in check.
The firestorm to ban digital political ads comes from good intentions given the drawbacks of digital political ads; however, outright banning political ads would be rash and do more harm than good. Potentially banning political ads would not only eliminate the many benefits of this form of advertising but also actually help further polarize the country as people would be less likely to see a multitude of views and more likely to view viral political videos, the most damaging misinformation agents. As such, while it is important to regulate digital political ads, platforms should allow this form of advertising to continue to exist and explore ways to limit the drawbacks of these advertising while amplifying the benefits.
Featured image via Politico.