It’s no secret by now that during the 2016 presidential election, hundreds and hundreds of ads, bought and paid for by Russia, were placed on Facebook. It is, in essence, a foreign power attempting to exert influence on our own democratic processes and if we’re to ensure the legitimacy of all high-profile elections moving forward, we need to do something to stop — or at least identify — these ads.
These companies—Facebook, Twitter, Google—are obviously enormously powerful merely as companies engineered to turn a profit. But perhaps more importantly, these companies wield enormous social power. With a quick tuning of a faceless algorithm, it’s easy for Facebook or Google to make anyone think or feel a certain way, especially when it comes to issues that already divide us the most, which is to say especially when it comes to politics.
Political ads are powerful things, as much so as voters are malleable. Often, especially in elections with less public interest, ads have the power to push results one way or the other, and assuming results dictate policy, have the power to influence outcomes for all of us.
So why is it that television ads are strictly regulated, but internet ads, which can be micro-targeted down to the smallest demographic, are not, at least not in the same way?
There needs to be transparency when it comes to political ads on social media. We cannot let the internet continue to be this wild west where lies can pass as truth without batting an eyelash. And what steps already have been taken by these companies, like Twitter and Facebook promising to disclose who paid for an ad, will likely not be enough. PACs and SuperPACs are already excellent tools for hiding the identities of rich and powerful donors, and in truth, they run anti to the spirit of campaign finance rules.
These rules, though they can be complicated and often convoluted, exist because Americans — on at least two occasions—have demanded a fair election system where the influence of money is not so powerful as the influence of the people.
The success of such rules have varied over time, and none of them are perfect. But if we’re to believe in the ideal of any campaign finance rules, then we have to believe that now is the time to ensure that the internet is not subject to the propagandistic whims of nations that seek only to destabilize and to divide the U.S.
And this is to say nothing of the debate over “fake news,” which can still easily dominate or derail debates on social media with nothing more than lies dressed up in nice-looking website. And as consumers, we should be able to have other options, but in all honesty, there aren’t good alternatives to Facebook or Google, or at least not ones that are viable for some sort of mass switch.
So for the time being, we must demand better.