Taming the U.S. digital election campaigns


The American election campaign will increasingly take place on the Internet due to the Coronavirus. But despite past scandals, there is still a lack of regulation of digital campaign advertising. Data misuse, manipulation and disinformation could once again become a problem in the upcoming elections - and decide the winner.

Photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

"A gift to Donald Trump" is what the media called Google's announcement to ban ads mentioning the coronavirus on its platforms in the future. Google wanted to prevent fraudsters from profiting from the crisis, but it also limited its ability to hold the U.S. president accountable for his failures during the crisis in the upcoming election. Google has since partially rescinded the rule. Nevertheless, the episode shows the power that lies with corporations in an election campaign that is increasingly being conducted via their platforms.

From Town Hall to Home office

Digital campaign advertising has played an increasingly important role, and not just since the spread of the coronavirus. Many see Trump's continued investment in online advertising and the associated collection of data as a key advantage of his campaign. Already in 2016, he had spent about a third of his budget on digital ads - four times as much as Democrat Hillary Clinton - playing out over 6 million different formats.

In the 2020 election year, when public appearances in front of audiences are impossible, campaigns need to reach potential voters all the more where they can be found at such times: social media, search engines and video streaming platforms. From early January to late April, Trump and his opponent Joe Biden alone spent more than $70 million on ads on Google and Facebook. Multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg spent $16 million in a single week during the Democratic primary campaign.

Meanwhile, the agitated debate about disinformation and manipulation that took place in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica election advertising scandal has borne little fruit. When it was revealed in 2018 that the company had used detailed personality profiles of more than 87 million Facebook users to influence them with personalized messages for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, the platform’s problematic role in the election campaign became apparent. Through this "microtargeting," personal information was used, for example, to dissuade African-American voters from voting by spreading rumors about Hillary Clinton. At the same time, it became known that Russian actors had bought ads on a large scale. Before the 2016 election, these actions were relatively unknown - but even four years later, little has changed in the legal framework. "We are even less protected today than we were four years ago," a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower warned in an interview. The lack of regulation could once again lead to digital campaigning by problematic means.

Regulation as you like it

The platforms have at least recognized the problem and are making efforts to be more transparent. Google and Facebook have introduced an "Ad Library" in which all of a candidate's ads can be viewed - this is intended to counteract the manipulative playing out of different political messages to different target groups. However, it is questionable how many voters will ultimately click through a library that currently contains 615,302 ads, as is the case with the Trump campaign. Moreover, users (and possibly even Facebook) do not know on the basis of which data and characteristics a message is displayed to them. Twitter's push to completely ban political ads was equally problematic: Democrats criticize that the rule would especially benefit those who already have an established following on the platform, i.e. Donald Trump. His Twitter page has over 78 million followers, while Joe Biden's Twitter posts are followed by only 5 million people. Facebook's decision not to decide on the truth or falsehood of the content of political ads - paving the way for the paid spread of false news - has also been sharply criticized.

Because of a lack of regulation, profit-oriented companies that make good money from election advertising decide for themselves on such potentially election-deciding regulations. Whether the tighter rules at Google and Facebook will solve the problems is as controversial as whether Internet portals, which are less in the public spotlight, have the resources and incentives to respond adequately. Meanwhile, there are as many ways to deal with election advertising as there are platforms.

Playing the blame game

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called for a more active role for government in regulation to "protect elections." He called on the government to provide clarity on what counts as political advertising and to introduce privacy regulation. The U.S. does not have a national data protection law comparable to the European General Data Protection Regulation.

But progress is unlikely before the 2020 election, especially at a time when Congress is largely preoccupied with dealing with the economic fallout from the coronavirus. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is responsible for regulating elections, has lacked a quorum since the resignation of a Republican - only three of the four required seats have been filled, and a replacement would require Senate approval.

The FEC last changed campaign advertising rules in 2006, before Facebook became relevant to election campaigns. While the rules include online advertising, in practice they grant some exemptions: while radio and TV ads are required by law to name the buyer of an ad, digital ads are exempt. Videos on digital platforms and smart TVs, which function like traditional TV advertising except that they can be much better targeted according to consumer behavior and the socio-demographic characteristics of users, are also not covered by the previous regulations for TV advertising.

Political messages between advertising and activism

Even if fully staffed, it would not be clear that the FEC would have the mandate and jurisdiction to address these issues. In the background looms the question that Twitter has also had to face: what counts as a political ad? Is it only ads by candidates, or also those that promote a particular issue without mentioning candidates? And how should paid disinformation be dealt with, such as videos that are directed against a candidate and spread virally? In principle, the production of content costs money and influences the election - in this respect, it could fall under the FEC's mandate.

Attempts to adapt the regulation of campaign advertising to the realities of digital media have already been made at a higher level: Back in 2017, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar proposed the "Honest Ads Act" in the Senate, which would extend previous rules for campaign advertising and financing to digital media. But although Republicans also worked on the proposal, little progress has been made. In the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority, the bill has so far failed to pass, and any progress here also seems unlikely before the election because of the preoccupation with the consequences of coronavirus.

New media, new challenges

While legislative progress has been slow, new methods and formats for using digital media in election campaigns are emerging constantly. The Democratic primaries have already produced a wide array of innovations: For example, campaigns are using the Chinese video platform TikTok to reach a young audience. Apps like "Hustle" and "GetThru" automate and personalize the sending of text messages so that existing rules can be circumvented. And Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg, by paying influencers, has raised new questions about the legitimacy of buying influence. Not to mention the still-unknown methods that probably will not be known until after the election.

Politics is lagging behind technological developments: political polarization, and the fear of handing the opposition an advantage, and the coronavirus are paralyzing legislation, while at the same time new media are changing and spreading faster than ever before. And even if effectiveness is hard to measure, and discourse is increasingly influenced by the promises of campaign consultants, that should be taken with a grain of salt: If the 2020 election is as close as it was in 2016, when some 77,000 votes handed Donald Trump the victory, any effect could be decisive.