A bipartisan group of digital consultants started a public push this week for lawmakers to address online advertising transparency and other issues facing political marketers.
The group, which included 17 practitioners from some of the top consulting firms, met in May for two days at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy as part of an ongoing effort to improve the tone of digital campaigning, enhance transparency and address election-related issues like privacy, regulation, and national security.
“The point here is to find areas where Democrats and Republicans can agree, and offer policy proposals by people who understand digital better than anyone else,” said Marc Farinella, a former consultant who now directs the Project on Political Reform and the Center for Survey Methodology at the Harris School. “This was an initial conversation that needs to be continued.”
Those who signed the public statement include from the left Sapphire Strategies’ Julia Ager, Mandate Media’s Kari Chisholm, Rising Tide Interactive’s Annie Levene, New Paradigm Strategy Group’s Adrian Saenz, Alexandra Dildine, and GPS Impact’s Roy Temple.
On the right, the signatories included Strategic Partners & Media’s Shannon Chatlos, Majority Strategies’ Randy Kammerdiener, Campaign Solutions’ Carter Kidd, Arena Online’s Ben Olson, American Majority’s Ned Ryun, Thomas Keeley, and The Strategy Group Company’s Ben Yoho.
And in the non-partisan space, Jordan Lieberman of a4 Media was also a signatory. (The consultants' firms didn't endorse the statement.)
During the May 22-24 confab, the consultant divided up into groups and drafted policy statements that were then voted on by the entire cohort. Farinella described it as a “self-guided roundtable discussion intended to help the participants uncover possible areas of broad bipartisan agreement.”
Ultimately, only a handful of proposals got consensus.
On Tuesday, the university published a jointly signed, two-page statement that contains four principles that the six Democratic and eight Republican members of the group believe are “likely to receive broad bipartisan support and will help meet the challenges posed by abusive practices.”
The principles are:
- Each election cycle, millions of dollars are spent on digital political advertising without transparency – not even the funding sources of the ads are disclosed. The funding sources of digital political ads on all platforms and systems must be made transparent. Voters are entitled to know who is paying for these ads.
- More generally, in order to successfully combat both foreign and domestic bad actors seeking to influence elections, requirements for oversight and disclosure must be made uniform across all digital advertising platforms and systems.
- All political digital practitioners must accept an ethical and moral responsibility to never use digital content that incites violence or that is maliciously 'manufactured’ to intentionally misrepresent actual events.
- Stronger transparency requirements, if properly designed and executed, can help counter the efforts of bad actors and impede foreign interference in elections. However, it is critical to the democratic process that such requirements carefully target bad actors and not force unnecessary disclosure of legitimate competitive information that is strategically valuable to candidates and campaigns.
The consultants’ statement comes as some actors in the digital ecosystem have taken steps to improve transparency. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are maintaining political advertising archives. In June, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) unveiled its transparency guidelines for political advertisers at the state and federal level, which become effective Nov. 1, 2019. And while federal legislation on these issues is stalled, state lawmakers are taking action.
Ultimately, Kammerdiener said the bipartisan group’s goal is to create uniform transparency in the digital marketing space. “We would like to see uniform standards across all platforms so that voters actually know who’s paying for it,” he said. “I want to make sure that we have a situation where people can count on the information that they’re getting.
“When people see things, whether it’s in social media, [or] in paid advertising, they should know who’s paying for it [and] where it’s coming from.”
If voters don’t know that information, Kammerdiener added, “it becomes less believable.”