Some consultants are celebrating Facebook’s decision not to follow Twitter and Google in restricting ad targeting, while others remain concerned the company’s move could make it harder to reach voters.
In a Thursday morning blog post Facebook wrote: “While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads.”
Tara McGowan, who heads the non-profit Democratic digital shop ACRONYM, said she was “thrilled to see that Facebook has decided against taking a knee-jerk reaction and instead has opted for improving its political ad transparency and consumer controls.”
“Facebook made the right call on this,” she added.
Still, concern in the industry lingers around the transparency of its Ad Library, and the added controls users now have over what they’re served.
In its targeting announcement, Facebook said it was updating its Ad Library to “increase the level of transparency.” The update includes adding size ranges for potential reach of an ad and better search functionality.
But Facebook will also allow users to restrict the ads they see and will add a feature that lets them “choose how an advertiser can reach them with a Custom Audience from a list.”
“The expanded transparency features will roll out in the first quarter of 2020 and will apply in all countries where we facilitate “Paid for by” disclaimers on ads,” the company said. “We plan to deploy the political ads control starting in the US early this summer, eventually expanding this preference to more locations.”
Some consultants worried that the added user controls would, in fact, limit the ability for campaigns to properly target.
“Giving users the option to opt-out of political ads is going to further erode reach,” said Brian Franklin, a Democratic digital consultant. “Particularly among the very persuadables we find most valuable. Their move only underscores why digital buys need to change in 2020 and have more overlapping layers than ever before.”
Reid Vineis of the Republican firm Majority Strategies agreed: “This sets a dangerous precedent of promoting voters to disengage from the political system and receiving less information about our government,” he said. “Facebook’s move is likely worse for the political process than removing targeting as other platforms have because now voters who opt-out will be less likely to participate in the democratic process.”
Other practitioners said they were disappointed the announcement didn’t include a policy on disinformation.
Facebook’s announcement came a day after a report on digital political ethics was released that detailed a group of practitioners’ recommendations for platform companies like Facebook.
Those recommendations included not halting political advertising and increasing transparency around approvals and ad take-downs.
The bipartisan group of 16 participants, which included academics, representatives of Twitter and Facebook, partners at firms like Blue State, 270 Strategies, Targeted Victory and WPA Intelligence as well as representatives from companies like E.W. Scripps and the party committees, also wanted improvements in the ad databases that platforms like Facebook and Google maintain.
“Political practitioners stated that they desired the same data disclosed regarding paid communications as television advertising buys, including the source of the content, the size of the advertising buy, and the geographic region in which it is being displayed,” read the report, which was funded by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life.
Asked about Facebook’s announcement Thursday, Jesse Baldwin-Philippi, an associate professor at Fordham University and co-author of the report, said that participant practitioners reached a consensus in wanting government to mandate the type of transparency included in the Honest Ads Act or similar legislation.
“Practitioners really didn't trust platforms to do this transparently enough, even if they say they'll document the right variables,” she said. “The current state of all platforms' ads databases is that they are lacking information and often just simply fail to catch all the content that should be in there. Practitioners think outside enforcement is needed for it to be done well.”
Part of the desire for a better database, at least on the right, is to increase transparency in digital ad pricing, according to the report: “Political practitioners on the right also pointed to a lack of transparency about ad spending by their own consultants, largely related to what ad buys and margins are. This does not have grave repercussions for electoral integrity, but is an ethical concern within the industry.”
“There were concerns about that on the left, but it was seen as a less prominent need,” Baldwin-Philippi said.
For its part, Facebook says it’s open to government regulation.
“The Honest Ads Act is a good example — legislation that we endorse and many parts of which we’ve already implemented,” the company said Thursday. “In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies.”
Baldwin-Philippi, meanwhile, noted that their report’s participants complained that the platform companies were making decisions without the industry’s input.
“A lot of the political consultants felt like the platforms weren’t consulting with them before they made decisions,” she said. “The political practitioners felt like the changes were always a surprise.”