A Goldilocks Zone for political ads

18th Nov 2020 | Share:

Around many stars there is a so-called “goldilocks zone” where the temperature is just right for a planet to enjoy liquid water, and (perhaps) to support life.

We think political advertising on social media also has a goldilocks zone.

If you allow too many ads, you give unscrupulous campaigns the ability to microtarget voters, tell them just what they want to hear, abuse their personal data, hide lies among thousands of different, simultaneous messages and avoid scrutiny.

When this happens, we all lose control of the system.

If you go too far the other way and ban ads altogether, you give incumbents with an existing organic audience a big advantage. New entrants, particularly grassroots organisations without access to mainstream coverage find it harder to reach the people they need to succeed. When this happens, democracy stops being responsive to change.

As we see it, the current reality of political advertising rules is that they are far too permissive. On the other hand, many of the most popular policy responses are much too restrictive.

So what policy could be “just right”?

We should remember our goals – ensuring freedom of expression and freedom to campaign, making sure smaller campaigns can find their voice, reducing the abuse of personal data for political purposes and trying to restore public trust in the methods used to try and win elections.

In our view, limiting the raw number of ads* that a campaign can run each day through independently determined quotas** is the simplest way to achieve these goals and find a sensible balance.

For example, a national party or candidate would have a quota that allows them to run a hundred social media ads on a platform on any given day.

This would give them every opportunity to reach places and people that are a priority for them and still speak about a range of issues of their choosing. It would likely mean more ads being targeted on the basis of geography and demographics than on behaviours or personal data, but it still means campaigns could (legally, with permission) target ads at “people who are our members” or “people who gave us £25 last year” – an important part of generating the resources (time and money) a campaign needs to thrive. Overall, it would lead to less voter data being collected and sloshing around the political campaign ecosystem.

For a candidate, local party or non-party campaign group, there would be a lower daily quota (for example of ten or twenty ads). This speaks to the relatively smaller size of their election or the fact that they’re not actually on the ballot. Again, they can still speak freely about all their issues and reach existing and potential supporters with their appeals, but there’s little opportunity to ‘microtarget’ voters and it’s harder to lie or tell people what they want to hear because there’s more chance of their ads getting appropriate scrutiny.

In sum, we envisage that the primary public concerns about digital political advertising and the risks it poses to democracy (namely that it’s awash with microtargeted lies) would be addressed by introducing daily quotas.

Of course there’s no single perfect idea when it comes to trying to regulate digital political advertising***, but the idea of a “goldilocks zone” – with fewer political ads running at once – cuts across and mitigates more of the risks associated with data-driven political advertising in its current form than any other policy proposal we’re aware of.

When combined with radical transparency, it’s a way of managing digital political advertising that’s neither too open, nor too restrictive, but just right.


*We define a single ad as a combination of every parameter available to an advertiser (text, media, targeting, optimisation, budget etc).

**The daily quotas here are indicative, but they’re in the ballpark of numbers appropriate for a first-past-the-post system. They could be set by an electoral commission or even by a platform, taking advice from independent election experts or observers.

***One counter argument to this proposal is that campaigners will simply set up new entities to access additional quotas. (Though we don’t feel this is a particularly practical workaround and regulators and/or platforms should be able to stop this happening quite easily.)

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