Critical Thinking: Should There Be More Ad Restrictions for Media Companies During an Election?


Critical Thinking - Nov. 2017

Facebook recently revealed it sold about $100,000 worth of ads during the last presidential election cycle from inauthentic accounts and pages “likely operated out of Russia.” Should there be more ad restrictions for media companies during an election?


Anant Naik, 21, senior, University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Naik is the opinions and editorials editor for the student-run newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He has written for the paper since 2014.

When Facebook discovered that accounts likely tied to Russia had purchased ads in the midst of last year’s presidential race, it raised an important question regarding how foreign actors could interfere with local elections. As a result, many are asking to increase the amount of restrictions for media companies during an election.

For example, Virginia senator Mark Warner has said he is in the process of writing a bill that would require social media companies to disclose who funded political ads. While it seems like a promising idea, I would strongly urge caution against posing blanket regulations on advertisements during elections.

The biggest concern with regulations in advertisements is the qualifications and the authority of the organization who decides whether or not an ad meets certain requirements. If the government decides what the regulations ought to be, it severely disadvantages campaigns that are critical of the government. This is especially true if a specific party is in power and controls what legislation is passed. This risks our country from entering an era of censorship that could mirror what happened during the 2010 elections in Myanmar, where the media was entirely regulated by the state, preventing any real democratic changes from occurring.

Social media has transformed our election process. It allows a global audience to participate in the socialization of the election, which can sway local populations for or against candidates. This necessitates the response to such interference be complex as well. I think that first, social media organizations must crack down on fake and illegitimate accounts, especially during election year. This does not mean more regulation, but enforcement of already existing regulation.

In a live broadcast from Facebook headquarters, CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised that the company would be far more transparent in their ad campaign policy. Each ad would contain public information about who was funding the campaign. This is a very important step because it keeps the decision-making power in the eyes of the voter.

Ultimately, our efforts to legitimize our election process ought to begin with the voter base. Our priority should be to teach voters to identify legitimate sources rather than shutting sources of information, like advertisements, down. At the end of the day, the power of an election comes from empowering the voter.



John Micek, 47, opinion editor, The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

Micek has been The Patriot-News’ opinion edition since January 2013.

No, Facebook and other media companies shouldn’t be subject to additional advertising restrictions during campaign cycles.

But the social media giant’s stunning lack of specificity about the activities of the Russian firm, with Kremlin ties, that bought $100,000 worth of advertising that ran, as The New York Times reported, before, during and after the 2016 campaign is an invitation to additional federal regulation.

So that means they need to clean up their own mess—before Congress steps in to do it for them.

But the devil here is in the details. Most traditional media companies have internal controls over what content appears on their websites, their air and in their pages. Facebook, as a digital media company, isn’t subject to the same restrictions as those legacy organizations, Bloomberg News reported.

So that means it’s on them to keep closer tabs on their advertising. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s flagship brand doesn’t exactly have the best record, although the company recently did itself a favor when it announced it would release the ads purchased by the Kremlin-connected interests.

CBS News reported that Facebook would undertake a number of steps to protect election integrity. Among them, Zuckerberg said Facebook will make its political advertising more transparent and that “anyone will be able to visit an advertiser’s page and view the ads” they’re sharing on the social media platform, CBS reported.

Additionally, Facebook will strengthen its own review process for political ads. That’s key. Ideally, no content should appear on Facebook without its being subjected to the same thorough vetting as a traditional media outlet.

Writing in The Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong nailed the issue: Facebook has to improve its own accountability and behave much more like a traditional media organization.

“If Facebook actually wanted to restrict the ability of foreign powers to interfere with democratic elections, the obvious solution would be to implement strict standards for political ads and employ human staff to enforce them,” she wrote. “Such a system would introduce significant friction to the company’s self-service system, however, so in the grand tradition of self-justification, Zuckerberg has chosen to pass off expediency as principle.”

The company will face its next big test in the upcoming elections in Germany. That will show whether the company has truly cleaned up its act.

If it hasn’t, expect Congress to move. And that could be bad for the rest of the media business.


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