A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 3, 2020

72 Percent of Americans Oppose Political Campaigns Using Personal Information

That support for greater restrictions on political advertising appears to cross hard political lines suggests that the impetus for enhanced regulation of tech and personal data is stronger than previously thought - and not going away. JL

Cat Zakrzewski reports in the Washington Post:

72% say Internet companies should not make any information about users available to political campaigns. This view is shared by Democrats (69%), independents (72%) and Republicans (75%). 81% say political ads containing clear falsehoods should be prohibited by tech companies. 59% say websites should be able to show political ads, so long as the companies disclose who paid for them, how much the ad cost and whom the ad is aimed at.
Most Americans say political campaigns should not be able to target people with digital ads based on their data, according to new polling released this morning. 
The research from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation reveals most Americans favor greater regulation of ads that are pushed to select groups of people based on personal data such as zip code, age, gender and education. 
Here are the key findings: 
  • Americans are taking a hard line against microtargeting: 72 percent say Internet companies not make any information about their users available to political campaigns. This view is shared roughly equally by Democrats (69%), independents (72%) and Republicans (75%). 
  • They also want the companies to remove outright falsehoods: 81 percent say that political ads containing clear falsehoods — such as the wrong day to vote — should be prohibited by the tech companies. But the landscape gets more complicated when it comes to ads that omit facts or misrepresentations. Forty-five percent say those should be refused, while 40 percent say they should be allowed to run with a disclaimer posted by the company.
  • They want greater ad transparency: 59 percent say websites should be able to show political ads, so long as the companies disclose who paid for them, how much the ad cost and whom the ad is aimed at. 
The polling is a rare measure of public sentiment as candidates pour millions of dollars into microtargeted ads ahead of the 2020 elections. It could ramp up pressure on the Federal Election Commission and Congress to update political ad rules for the digital era. 
Neither have taken significant action on this front – even as tech companies' collection of highly personal data has become an increasingly valuable tool for campaigns in recent years. The Knight Foundation hopes that this data can be a resource in the debate. “From a policy perspective, we really seem to be kind of winging it as a society," said John Sands, who serves as the Knight Foundation's director of learning and impact. "Decision-makers within the companies and policymakers in government have staked out different positions. So we just want to make sure that the policymakers have all the information they need to be able to make decisions in the public interest.” 
In the absence of greater federal regulation, the companies have been dictating the rules on political ads themselves. And they've taken very different strategies. 
Twitter for instance banned political ads from its service. Google adopted some limitations on the data that campaigns can use to target ads, blocking candidates from targeting narrow slices of users based on their political affiliation. Facebook has taken perhaps the most hands-off approach to the ads. It's allowing politicians to lie in ads – and arguing that journalists and researchers should fact-check politicians, not the company. This gets even more complicated since it's also allowing microtargeting, despite warnings from researchers that it's more difficult for them to fact-check tailored ads because there can be so many different messages running simultaneously on the service.
“The platform companies are so intimately involved in decision-making process now about how political information is disseminated and what constitutes political information,” Sands said. “These decisions seem to be being made without the benefit of sound, independent, reputable research."
“We want to make sure that as these decisions get made, that they're being done transparently and in a way where the American people know where they stand," Sands added. 
These ads have been a politically perilous issue for the tech giants in the Trump era. Facebook has come under fire for not taking action against the President's ads containing falsehoods, such as one promoting falsehoods about former vice president Joe Biden's links to Ukraine. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have criticized Facebook's handling of these ads. 
During divided political times, the apparent public support for greater regulation of political ads on both sides of the aisle underscores why more politicians are talking about regulating the platforms, Sands said. There's a growing “techlash” at both the state and federal level, as lawmakers from both parties propose antitrust and privacy regulation. 
“It really highlights why so many policymakers are coming to the table now with proposals about some of the issues surrounding digital platforms,” Sands said. “And it just underscores the importance of these issues to everyday Americans.”


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