The lack of an industry-wide discussion on professional ethics and a lack of real consequences for breaking established professional norms has imperiled the campaign industry.
From my position as a digital campaign consultant, I’d argue this led to everything we saw in 2016 and what we continue to see ahead of the midterm elections. In 2018, technology has advanced past our laws, leaving our industry some hard choices to make.
People can create fake video that looks just like the real thing – and now campaigns are even starting to use it. People can create fake news and use it to win elections: read this prescient report from 2015 on Twitter bots and the Mexico elections.
Foreign governments can run sophisticated paid social media campaigns to fan the flames on divisive issues and disrupt our own elections.
Google, Facebook and Twitter have announced changes for 2018. Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence these serious vulnerabilities at the heart of digital networks have been addressed and repaired for 2018, so no doubt we’ll see even more of this.
These services run on ad dollars, and it’s just not in their financial interest to shut off the taps beyond some superficial window dressing fixes.
Even apart from foreign actors, we cannot escape self-examination.
We are part of the problem.
Rampant email list swaps by campaigns have resulted in lower and lower deliverability rates across the board. Fake petitions and gimmicks abound. “Final Notice” fake bill collector email campaigns continue to be used by the major party campaign organizations.
Social media clickbait is everywhere. How many times have any of us been forced to do something that we consider at least borderline unethical because the client insisted? We all live in the swamp now, and this is our normal digital landscape.
One of the problems with this new digital world is there are no repercussions for bad acts.
There have been no real consequences for Russia, or the Macedonian scammers, or the Americans making $10K/month creating fake news websites.
And how have the people using racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia not faced any real consequences either? If anything, the supposed architects of these gutter campaigns have been feted and are now making millions from their association with Trump and Co.
People who swap email lists with no consent behind-the-scenes, and burn their lists to the ground using bad faith “petition” name grabs and scare tactics can raise a lot of money online, and digital money is now required to pay for ever-more-expensive campaigns in a post-Citizens United world.
Voter suppression, whether passed via laws in a state legislature, or divisive online ad campaigns, works. Incendiary social media ads get the views and clicks, and push campaign norms ever closer to the cliff just to garner eyeballs.
I don’t have answers to a lot of these questions. Laws may eventually catch up, especially if people push their legislators to make some of these behaviors a crime (or enforce laws already on the books).
Candidates can take a stronger stand on all of these points, grounded in respect for their voters, their supporters, their donors. Platforms can clamp down on people doing organic or paid outreach unethically. The media can expose them. Our field can shame people that do unethical things, and not refer business to them, or not give them awards or accolades.
Sign The Pledge?
In fact, progressive email campaigners have recently developed a good practices pledge, and there’s no reason why people can’t develop such pledges for digital advertising tactics, social media and more. These new standards can and should be bipartisan too, because this problem affects everybody in all campaigns and all parties.
I’ve had to do some hard thinking about my own ethics, and what I am and am not willing to do. Where I come down on this is that truth is an absolute defense, and accountability in work is critical.
We decry push polls, but it is fair and necessary to draw contrasts between candidates and explain who they are and what they plan to do. If what they plan to do is bad, we have the right and the obligation to inform voters of that. If what they’ve done in the past is bad, we ought to share that, too. But we can’t ethically spread things that are fake, and I will not use the worst of humankind to win.
I am more than happy to run accountability online advertising and social media campaigns against candidates to make sure their record and their character is known, though.
But here’s a question for all of us: where do we personally draw the line? Is winning more important than anything? What if we cannot win anymore without betraying our ethics?
At the end of the day, if voters don’t punish candidates for running unethical campaigns, and candidates do not punish consultants and staff for crossing the line, we can look forward to even more of it.
When an entire field is “juiced,” eventually it becomes impossible to compete fairly without steroids. Is this what we want the future of campaigning to be?
Laura Packard (@lpackard) is a partner at PowerThru Consulting, a Democratic digital strategy and web development firm.