In 2024, there are a lot of elections. Billions of people will vote. And over the next 12 or so months, they’ll see hundreds of billions of impressions of online political ads.
Some of those elections will be routine, straightforward and without controversy. The majority, when it comes to the number of voters, will not.
While each election is different, platforms don’t have to approach them on a case by case basis when it comes to political advertising policy and transparency. Since 2016’s round of elections, the largest online platforms have slowly introduced, then gradually improved, their ad transparency programmes to the point where there’s something to build on. But there are still big gaps, variations and enforcement issues across platforms.
So below, we set out some ideas for platforms to adopt that would help people better trust the ads they see, and allow researchers and journalists to cover political campaigns without feeling like they’re missing key elements.
And of course, let us know what you think we missed…
Changes everyone could make:
- Improve political advertiser verification. Too many odd things get through platforms’ verification processes, and too many things are missed. Now is a good time for platforms to review the quality of their verification process, and ensure that false positives and negatives are reduced as much as possible.
- Help political advertisers to be more transparent. Require advertisers to show the party (occasionally more than one) or coalition they’re a member of, or support.
- On the same theme, require that candidates can easily tell you where they’re running for. If they are running for a state, seat or office, make it very easy for them to say that.
- Provide accurate spending figures, including for people who spend only a few dollars/pounds/euros a day. When you are taking in billions in ad revenue, $100/day seems like a small amount of money, but that’s not the case in every election. Platforms have the data and know exactly what an advertisers spent (because it’s what they charge them), so publish it to the nearest $1/£1/€1 (etc).
- Provide spending figures within 24hrs. It is not reasonable to have to wait until after an election has happened to understand how much advertising was being bought immediately before, or on the day of, an election. Spending data is the best proxy for how active a campaign is.
- Don’t provide generative AI features for political ads. There is no need to give advertisers automated ad creation or optimisation tools.
- Don’t allow people to use generative AI in their ads. If it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. No satire exemption, no innocent uses. Self-regulation (i.e. by forcing advertisers to label when they’ve done it) isn’t going to be enough, so start with an extremely conservative policy, and see how things go.
- Provide image descriptions, video transcripts and subtitles in ads and ad libraries. Make the content of ads that isn’t text easy to analyse. If advertisers aren’t providing their own, your tools are doing it anyway (for moderation purposes), so just include them.
- Be consistent in applying your advertising policies. If you make a moderation decision (e.g. briefly display an ad that is found to breach your policies), show the decision. Hiding the ad in your ad library and declaring it to be “against policy” is not enough.
- Use your own targeting tools for good. If someone interacts with one or more political ads, use that as an opportunity to provide them with some useful information about voting and/or the political ads they may see. There’s never a bad moment to help people.
Changes Meta should make:
- Differentiate between the different types of ‘political’ advertiser. At the moment, ‘political’ and ‘issue’ advertisers merge into one. It makes separating who’s who difficult. A charity advertising for new donors is not the same as a local candidate advertising for votes.
- Include the page category in the ad library, and ad library report. This makes it easier to work out who’s who and what their goals are (see above).
- Show more about how advertisers use Custom Audiences (lists of people you can upload to Meta’s ad services, then target with ads if they have a Facebook or Instagram account). How many audiences is the advertiser using? How many people are in the audience? What kind of data is in it? How many ads is it used in? To us, it’d make sense to require advertisers to create public labels and descriptions for their Custom Audiences, and publish these in the ad library.
- Switch off the share and comment buttons on political ads. The promise of “quality debate” in the comments under political ads has not been realised, while share buttons allow unpaid, unearned reach for political advertisers. Yes, “engagement” might be one of the signals you use to decide who to show an ad to, but that’s not what matters here.
- Don’t let people run too many ads. It’s perfectly possible to run a presidential campaign on 50-100 ads at any one time. Facebook and Instagram users aren’t human guinea pigs, we’re not here to be ‘tested’ on. Sure, people might do their message testing elsewhere, and bring their results to their Facebook ad campaigns, but they can’t do the full package of tests (such as how well the ad algorithms treat their ads).
Changes Google should make:
- Make your political ad library always on. Having it restricted to election periods is ridiculous. Ad campaigns are always on, always influencing, always persuading. Users, researchers and journalists have the right to know what’s happening.
- Broaden what’s covered. Make sure that if someone is running ads and running for office, or running obviously electorally relevant ads (e.g. PACs and campaign groups) that their advertising is included. This includes local elections, by- and special- elections and so on.
- Create some ad library filters. You only allow political ads to be targeted by age, gender and location. Add in a spend/impressions filter and you’ll allow voters to see all the ads that might target them.
- Make that data downloadable. No APIs, no datastores. Click a button to get a csv file of the data you want. Meta offers this.
- Make it easier to deeplink into your ad library. Users can see a report of top spenders in the UK in the last 30 days, but they can’t share the link. Why not?
Changes X should make:
- Get a proper ad library up and running again as soon as possible. The one you have now isn’t serious.
- At the very least, make your ad library so you can see who has run ads. At the moment, you can search for any account, with no signal as to whether they’re an active or recent advertiser.
- Provide spending data, not just reach.
- Run a proper verification programme for political advertisers. No, not the paid one, a proper one.
- Like for Meta, get rid of the social features. No comments or quotes, no shares, no likes.
Changes TikTok should make:
- Allow some forms of political advertising, particularly around voter registration and reminders to vote, even if those ads are from parties or candidates. Political advertising is a controversial topic, and one that you’ve made the call to stay out of, but as the primary social network where younger people spend their time, you’re reducing opportunities to help get people politically involved. Getting voters started on voting when they’re 18 is a good thing, and if you don’t, it’s often a decade or two before they begin to participate. You can do good!
- Make sure such ads are transparently labelled and easily found in your ad library.
- Again, drop the comments and sharing for these. Ads are ads.
- Limit the targeting options to geography and demographics.
- Yes, unlike in Europe, there’s no transparency requirement in the US, but you should expand your ad library to include it (do India and Mexico while you’re at it).