Researchers are pushing the FEC and major platform companies to increase transparency related to digital advertising by campaigns and groups. The proposed moves could help identify illegal campaign spending, improve clients’ understanding of how their money is being allocated and show more clearly how the industry adapts to future digital ad restrictions, according to two Duke University researchers.
Currently, digital ad spending is reported to the FEC in terms ranging from “digital advertising” to “paid media-online” to “web ads” to “ads.” Moreover, campaigns and groups funneled 94 percent of their digital spending through consultancies, according to a policy brief published earlier this month by Duke’s Center on Science & Technology Policy.
“This means that for most election-related advertising spending, all we can see is that political organizations paid consultancies, but we can’t see how consultancies spent that money. We can see money going in, but we can’t see money going out.”
As Republican House candidate Kim Klacik’s recent experience demonstrates, that opacity on reporting can further the disconnect between consultants and their clients’ understanding of digital fundraising and marketing.
But for J. Scott Babwah Brennen, a policy associate at Duke’s Center on Science and Technology Policy, the reporting issue also correlates with the platform companies’ ad blackouts. He notes campaigns and groups had to adapt their spending during the ad blackout periods in 2020, but how consultants shifted that spending isn’t at all clear because, according to the brief, “federal law does not require political organizations to report how advertising agencies or consultancies spend money on their behalf.”
“There isn’t a great deal of sharing of knowledge and experience happening amongst different firms or campaigns — having this sort of data would help campaigns improve their strategy going forward and stop them relying on the two big platforms, Facebook and Google,” Brennen told C&E.
Brennen said the impetus for the policy brief, which will be part of a series examining the impacts of the ad bans, was an attempt to research digital spending around the Georgia Senate runoffs.
“Frankly, without the sort of granular data, we just can’t see really clearly how that spending is shifting. It just prevents us from understanding what effect these big policy changes are having,” he said.
Now, some of the social media companies are trying to make it easier to follow the money. The brief notes that Snap’s political ad archive “offers a useful example of how a minor change in an ad archive’s codebook can increase transparency.
“We recommend that ad archives follow Snap’s lead and include two distinct variables in their ad archives that distinguish between the funder and the purchaser of an ad. We also recommend that platforms require both fields to be completed before accepting new political advertisements.”
As Congress continues its machinations on legislation that would require improved transparency, the Duke researchers are advocating for the following:
1. Federal law should require political advertisers to be more transparent. The FEC should amend an outdated Advisory Opinion that allows campaigns to use agencies as black boxes to hide their advertising spend.
2. The FEC should improve its data disclosures to facilitate political advertising research. The current system is difficult for researchers, with the FEC publishing incomplete data at uncertain intervals. The FEC should provide a clear timeline for data release.
3. Platforms should modify political ad libraries to increase transparency. Platforms should standardize data types and variable names, improve search functionality, and increase user access.
4. Federal law should require, improve, and standardize platform ad archives. Congress should consider requiring all major types of digital political ad providers to maintain standardized, publicly accessible, and searchable ad databases.