Beyond Free Speech: Failures in Online Advertising Policy

September 29, 2020

A new brief provides policy solutions to address the challenges of social media ads


The rise of social media has dramatically altered our elections as false information goes viral and affects political outcomes. While the Federal Election Commission provides guidance on advertising and disclaimers on any public communication made by a political committee, tech companies such as Google and Facebook often request and are granted exemptions. The highly targeted advertisements on these platforms blur the line between paid political advertising and “issue” messaging, which often masquerades as news content shared organically rather than being spread by organized campaigns. This presents a unique threat to our democracy. 

Beyond Transparency: Regulating Online Political Advertising, a new report released today by Anya Schiffrin (director of the technology, media, and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs), creates a framework for what reforms might be possible given the priority courts often give to First Amendment freedom of speech rights. The report first addresses the effects of information and advertising on elections, citing research on the importance of high-quality information for democracies to function. It then contrasts the regulatory climate in Europe with the current US environment and recommends six potential solutions (bulleted below) that could be implemented here. And finally, the report explores why the US needs both government regulation and better voluntary practices by tech companies to ensure the quality and viability of political ads.  

“Exposure to ‘mis/disinformation online’ is clearly affecting voting decisions,” said Schiffrin. “The absence of quality information can simultaneously distort voting patterns, election outcomes, and government policies. However, the mere presence of quality information is not enough to combat democratic corrosion; such information must be easily accessible and must be provided simultaneously with false information.”  

The recommended solutions are:

  • Reviving the Honest Ads Act to induce more expansive disclosure of political advertisements;
  • Making ad libraries (searchable databases of online ads about social issues, elections, or politics) more consistent and transparent;
  • Ensuring tech companies provide more detailed information related to political ad targeting;
  • Limiting microtargeting altogether and expanding privacy regulations;
  • Committing to a true marketplace of ideas (e.g., providing free access to the posting and transmission of information online); and
  • Providing free political ads and free high-quality information.

“The measures put in place by the tech platforms, including their ad libraries, are an insufficient nod in the same direction, falling short of what’s needed. While Facebook and Twitter have been more aggressive about downranking and de-platforming than they were before, far more must be done, and soon,” said Schiffrin.


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