Democratic bills crack down on political ad microtargeting online

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., speaks during a rally in the Capitol Building to call on the Senate to vote on House Democrats’ prescription drugs and health care package on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Two new Democratic proposals aim to crack down on the ways political campaigns can target narrow groups of voters on platforms like Facebook and Google.

The latest to be announced comes from Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose “Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act” would place limits on how narrowly political campaigns could target their messages online. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., announced last week he would introduce a similar measure, the “Protecting Democracy from Disinformation Act,” on Tuesday.

Cicilline’s bill would limit targeting to location, age and gender while Eshoo’s would only allow political advertisers to target voters based on broad location-based data or those who opted into receiving targeted ads. Both would include a private right of action, so individuals alleging a violation could file suit.

Microtargeting typically refers to the act of displaying ads to a narrow audience based on certain characteristics, interests and even ZIP codes. The practice has drawn heightened scrutiny in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when U.S. officials learned of targeted disinformation campaigns by Russian actors. In recent years, academics and several prominent Democrats, including Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, have called on tech platforms to revise their policies to limit the ways political campaigns can reach a subset of voters. Those critics say that finely splicing audiences can obscure harmful messages from public view.

Tech platforms have taken steps to make their political ads processes more transparent. Facebook and Google, for example, both have searchable archives where anyone can look up the people and money behind political advertisements on their services.

Facebook has remained steadfast on its policies of allowing microtargeting and refusing to fact-check ads by politicians (except for those that include coronavirus-related misinformation). Google said it would remove the ability for advertisers to upload their own third-party lists of voters to target. Twitter went further, banning political advertising altogether.

Sophisticated targeting tools are part of what has made digital platforms like Facebook and Google become valuable tools for political advertisers. Advertisers enjoyed the ability to spend their limited funds more efficiently by targeting only the voters they believed would be receptive to a certain ad based on demographic traits, online interests or their location. Such targeting tends to be much more narrow than that available on traditional channels like TV, limiting the possibility that advertisers will waste some of their dollars on non-receptive viewers.

The bills are likely to draw scrutiny as several conservatives have previously criticized tech platform’s stricter targeting policies. After Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the company’s decision to ban political ads on its platform, President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that it was “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.”

With the presidential election just months away, Congress has yet to pass another proposed reform to bring political advertising laws up to speed with the digital age: The Honest Ads Act. The bill, originally introduced in October 2017, would require platforms to maintain stringent records of political advertising spend and take steps to prevent foreign actors from buying political ads. It was reintroduced last May by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. 

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