Jan 14, 2020 - Economy & Business

2020 rules of the road for the Age of Misinformation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With just weeks to the Iowa caucuses, social media platforms have finalized their rules governing political speech — and fired a starting pistol for political strategists to find ways to exploit them from now till Election Day.

Why it matters: "One opportunity that has arisen from all these changes is how people are trying to get around them," says Keegan Goudiss, director of digital advertising for Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign and now a partner at the progressive digital firm Revolution Messaging.

Driving the news: Facebook announced it would not back down from its controversial policy of not fact-checking politicians' statements, and Twitter, YouTube and other platforms have all adjusted their political-speech rules as well.

Axios spoke with a half dozen campaign strategists, both Republicans and Democrats, as well as social intelligence experts, about what these rules will mean for the remainder of the political cycle.

(1) Ad systems will be gamed: "[D]id you know you can still buy voter-targeted inventory on Google’s AdX exchange? Those with the means or tech chops to have a seat on their exchange can still microtarget Google inventory. Is that fair? I don’t think so," says Guidiss.

  • Google's ad policies prohibit campaigns from micro-targeting users using its ad technology, but the platform can't stop ad-buyers from micro-targeting Google's inventory through other third-party ad exchanges called demand-side platforms.
  • Sources say that moving forward, if Google does detect that advertisers are trying to deliberately circumvent its rules, it will consider taking action against those accounts.

(2) Custom audience target lists will still be crucial: Despite the fact that Google has limited micro-targeting, and Facebook made it possible for users to opt out of the function, audience list-matching will still play a huge role in this election.

  • "'Being able to use custom audience lists (on Facebook) is important so we can upload voter files," says Eric Wilson, a veteran Republican digital strategist and former Digital Director for Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign. Wilson says having tools that other, non-political advertisers have access to on Facebook, like list-matching, "has been very useful."
  • "A lot of digital strategists, including myself, took a breath of relief that Facebook wasn’t going to be banning or limiting political ads more," says Goudiss.

(3) Lies will still flourish: Facebook is one of the strongest tools for campaigns to gather data about voters. Because Facebook said definitively last week that it will not fact-check political speech, nor will it limit micro-targeting political ads, campaigns will leverage both freedoms to make sure the most provocative ads reach the right people, or as Axios' Scott Rosenberg puts it, candidates and groups will be able "to exploit populations' anxieties and resentments efficiently."

  • "Facebook could prioritize meaningful engagement, rooted in fact, but they won't do that because it reduces the amount of time users spend on the platform, " says Wilson, who is happy Facebook didn't elect to fact-check ads because "I don't trust Facebook to be the arbiters of truth in that regard."
  • "[I]f Facebook wants to preserve trust with their users, they should start by prohibiting politicians from lying within their ads that Facebook profits from," says ACRONYM CEO and founder Tara McGowan, who has been a vocal opponent of Facebook limiting micro-targeting for political ads.
  • "There is a growing consensus that these changes are not actually preventing bad actors or fighting misinformation but they are definitely making things harder for advertisers who are following all of the rules," says Tim Lim, a Democratic digital strategist.

(4) Ad bans will set a precedent for smaller platforms: Because few ad political ad dollars were spent on Twitter to begin with, strategists don't seem too concerned that the platform has banned political ads. But they do worry about the precedent that Twitter's ban sets for other platforms, like Spotify and TikTok most recently, to also bar political ads.

  • Twitter continues to be a powerful platform for driving the political conversation forward. And Twitter's lenient policies around politicians' free speech, which have been reinforced lately by the president's threats to Iran, have set a permissive precedent for how the platform will react to provocative things candidates tweet.

(5) Creative becomes the constant: "As technology companies continue to change their advertising policies, one thing is going to remain consistent: Creative will be the differentiator that wins," says Katie Spannbauer, Director of Advertising Operations at Targeted Victory, the political agency that handled the campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016.

Yes, but: Some strategists see limits on political advertising as being damage control, and it's unclear whether or how hard the platforms will enforce their new roles.

  • "I think it’s too early for anyone to have a real plan in place," says Wilson. "But smart digital operatives are building their backup plans now — adapting some online messaging for a more broadcast-style approach, working with other advertising networks that will still allow legitimate campaigners to employ these widely used tactics, and investing in technology that helps campaigns connect directly with voters."

The big picture: Digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter are important because they allow campaigns to gather extremely detailed data about voters that they can leverage to boost other campaign efforts later down the line. Data collected from digital platforms can be used to build fundraising lists, inform TV ad buys and boost attendance at rallies.

The bottom line: "Despite the revelations about Facebook following the 2016 election and the many changes in how people use social media since the last election, the platform remains central to campaigns for both the Democrats and the Republicans," says Catherine Sanz, senior journalist at social analytics platform Storyful.

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