Oct 8, 2020 - Technology

Tech's steadily tightening limits on political ads

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Nearly every major tech platform has acted to limit political ads in some way since 2016. Some have enacted strict bans and allow no political, social or election ads whatsoever, while others have put more temporary or partial limits in place.

Why it matters: Formal federal regulation of online political ads is not in sight, but the pressure on platforms from lawmakers and activists has so far been enough to push them to act voluntarily.

Driving the news: Facebook said Wednesday it plans to temporarily stop running all social issue and political ads in the U.S. after the polls close on November 3, a move similar to one Google announced two weeks ago.

Catch up quick: Long before the internet, the U.S. government passed sweeping laws governing political advertising on regulated media like television and radio. Those laws required advertisers to disclose their identities and spending information.

  • After the 2016 election, it became clear that Big Tech was not prepared to protect its platforms from being abused to manipulate voters and spread misinformation, including through advertising.
  • Critics began to pressure lawmakers and tech companies to create rules that would bring the same level of transparency to online ads that exists for broadcast ads.

The big picture: Congress has mostly given up on efforts in this area after it failed to pass the Honest Ads Act into law in 2018, and the Federal Election Commission, which can make rules around campaign spending, is essentially non-functional for now.

  • Various U.S. states, including California, New York, Virginia and Washington, have their own online election transparency laws. Other states have tried and failed to pass similar laws.

Yes, but: Big Tech's political ad crackdowns have mostly occurred in response to the threat of regulatory action after much tussling with Congressional offices on specific bill language.

  • Google and Facebook first began to ban political ads in Washington State in 2018, after the state's officials made sweeping changes to its campaign spending laws.
  • Since then, tech platforms have updated their political ad rules incrementally, with some platforms, like Twitter, Twitch, TikTok, Microsoft and LinkedIn, eventually banning all political ads.

Be smart: Most of these limits have been placed in response to the 2016 election, where tech platforms, but particularly Facebook, were blamed for Russian election interference.

  • Russian actors didn't spend enough money on political ads to influence the election, but they spent enough to spook tech firms into acting to get ahead of the problem.

The intrigue: After 2016, foreign interference was seen as the biggest problem platforms face with political information and ads. Now much of the worry is about American politicians spreading misinformation. Banning political ads is one way to limit both kinds of problems.

Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals

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