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Social Media Transparency and Issues-Based Advertising

Tue, 03/06/2018

By Archie Smart, Executive Vice President, MSL, Washington D.C.

Late last year, Twitter and Facebook announced that they would implement new rules for political and issues advertising, prompted by the discovery that Russian operatives used both platforms to spread misinformation and promote divisiveness during the 2016 presidential election.

These new rules specifically include disclosing who is paying to promote political ads on both platforms and also include increased transparency measures for all advertisers. Twitter will let everyone view ads that have been targeted towards them and what targeting criteria was used. Facebook will create ad archives that allow anyone to see what ads a page is running at any given time.

This increased transparency is being billed as something that’s protecting democracy and the integrity of elections, but at their core, the changes are about preventing abuse on both platform’s advertising systems to improve the end-user experience.

While the changes are clearly a good thing for Facebook and Twitter users, how will they affect advertisers who rely on these platforms to reach their audiences?

If you’re a corporate or commercial organization, or if you advertise on behalf of one, this is great news. Increased transparency leads to more trust, and Facebook and Twitter’s efforts to root out the bad actors lead to a much cleaner and safer environment for both users and advertisers.

On the other hand, if you currently advertise for political or issue-based organizations, there’s a lot more uncertainty. While Facebook and Twitter have announced their intentions to roll out these new transparency measures, the timeline is a bit unclear. Twitter said in an October 2017 blog post that changes would begin rolling out in “the coming weeks”, but no changes have been made. A spokesperson confirmed that the transparency measures are still planned but did not comment on the delay.

In Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post about the company’s fourth-quarter results, he noted that the company is in the process of testing a tool that allows all users to view the ads a page is running on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, even if they aren't the intended audience. He said that the goal is to roll out the new feature in the United States during the summer of 2018, ahead of the midterm elections.

Once all of the changes are implemented (if they all actually are), there will most likely be a drop in political advertising on these platforms as organizations figure out the new system. Given the fact that everyone will know who sponsored which political ad, some organizations might choose to run fewer ads - or none at all.

Additionally, many political groups might shy away from advertising on Twitter because of the transparency in targeting information, whether it is to keep proprietary voter research safe from competitors or to avoid creating any controversy since many of these groups target by specific demographic criteria.

One of the biggest gray areas will be issue-based advertising. While Facebook’s new transparency measures will allow users to view all ads currently running from any given page, whether it’s political or issues-based or completely unrelated to either, Twitter’s issues-based advertising policy is much more unclear. Right now, Twitter says that its changes will only apply to "Political (Electioneering) Ads", as defined by the U.S. Federal Election Commission. But what does it mean if you’re an issues-based organization, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the American Public Health Association?

Twitter only says the following about issue-based ads: "We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads. There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads but we will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policymakers, and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above."

Because of this, it might take some time for issues-based organizations to figure out exactly how the changes will affect them. Despite this, these organizations should be happy about the proposed fixes. Yes, in the short-term, it will cause a headache for groups who might have to turn to other forms of advertising to raise awareness about their causes.

The real problem is that right now, in the eyes of Facebook, Twitter, and many of their users, all political and issues-based advertisers are the same - and they’re all bad. If people can’t tell who is paying for certain ads, they have a good reason to distrust all ads related to politics. If you’re a legitimate issues-based organization, the last thing you want is to be lumped in with fake news and MAGA bots and the Internet Research Agency.

This is why these changes will be good for public affairs advertising in the long-run. They will help weed out the bad actors and rebuild a level of trust between advertisers and social media users. Increasing the trust users have in social media advertising overall and in political advertising, in particular, will help issues organizations be more effective at advertising on social media in the future. Users will be more inclined to view them as trustworthy organizations and know that the information they’re receiving is accurate. So for all the gray areas and wait-and-see, increased transparency on Facebook and Twitter will ultimately be a good thing for political and issues-based advertising.

Archie Smart

Archie Smart is an executive vice president at MSL, Washington D.C., responsible for leading digital and interactive services. He has more than 15 years’ experience working in the digital communications space. Most recently, he served as chief technology officer at Targeted Victory, a full-service interactive advertising agency, where he was responsible for leading the digital team and managing high-profile online/digital political campaigns, including Mitt Romney for President, The Republican National Committee and American Crossroads. Connect with him: @dasmart

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