NEW YORK: With the US midterm elections moving a step closer in the wake of yesterday’s primaries, questions remain about the probity of online political advertising, with the Honest Ads Act representing one possible answer to these problems.

“Currently, there is no law that adequately addresses digital political advertising,” Young Mie Kim, professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told WARC in an interview. (For more details, read WARC’s in-depth report: Can The Honest Ads Act save online political advertising?)

Kim’s basis for this argument rests, in part, on two in-depth studies she led into a huge slate of political ads that were run on Facebook in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

One issue highlighted by her analysis involved the dangers of microtargeting – especially around controversial issues. “If campaigns are targeted at you and not me, I would never even know the existence of the ad you’re exposed to,” she said.

That situation, in turn, restricts the ability of voters, researchers, journalists and lawmakers to “monitor and investigate the ads, who is behind the ads, and who is targeted with the ads,” Kim asserted.

The Honest Ads Act – which was proposed in the Senate late last year – may begin addressing these shortcomings by requiring large digital platforms to build a record of political advertisers spending more than $500 a year, as well as making a digital rendering of each message available.

It would also require details about each ad – such as its target audience, price, and the candidate supported – to be accessible. “Reasonable efforts” must be made to limit foreign nationals from buying ads that try to influence elections, too.

Additionally, disclosure would be compulsory for ads made by – or on behalf of – a candidate, and for political matters of “national importance”, be it someone on the ballot, an election to a Federal office, or a “national legislative issue of public importance”.

The Honest Ads Act would thus make the sponsor of an ad known for a wide – albeit not all-encompassing – variety of ads, and so increase transparency.

“Voters have a right to know [and] to try to make an informed decision,” said Kim. “If it is enacted … it will extend the disclosure and disclaimer rule to digital media platforms.”

At the broader level, she warned that the damage “stealth media” campaigns can cause must not be underestimated because they involve numerous small and ephemeral players, rather than a few powerful entities that deliver ads to a mass audience.

“When you add up the small groups, it’s going to be a lot of people,” Kim said. “But if you’re just looking for the ads that target the majority of people, there will be no such thing on digital platforms.”

Sourced from WARC