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Twitter's former elections head: Political ads need transparency

Photo Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Adam Sharp has a rare view into how we got to this week, with Facebook, Google and Twitter set to appear before three congressional committees over Russian election meddling. He led Twitter's strategy for the 2016 and 2012 elections (part of a six year career at the company) before leaving in December.

Why it matters: The congressional hearings about social media and the 2016 election start this week with a public that's deeply divided on the issue of Russian interference, according to an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll. The companies say they're open to required disclosures for paid political advertising — but Sharp argues even that may not be enough. Axios' spoke with Sharp via email over the weekend.

You have been intimately involved in the questions around political disclosure on social media. How did we get to this point?

Neither the lawmakers, candidates, nor digital platforms ever really made transparency a priority. Campaigns and political groups tend not to want any more hurdles than they are absolutely required to have. Google and Facebook fought against disclosure. The FEC was paralyzed by partisan deadlock.

Despite the unclear FEC rules on this issue, what should the companies have done to avoid or better handle this type of election meddling?

It was a mistake to ignore the spirit of the law when the FEC failed to modernize the text of it. Twitter supported ads with full disclaimers as early as 2011. But Google and Facebook were much bigger and ad buyers knew the FEC wouldn't act. Obfuscation became the industry standard. By the end of 2016, disclaimers had faded even from Twitter, though they and Facebook now intend to provide them in 2018.

Patterns of "filter bubbles" have also long been apparent, particularly on Facebook, as has the tendency for falsehoods to go viral as easily as truths. There are a number of studies showing search results, tweets and Facebook posts can influence voting behavior, and third-party researchers flagged abuses of each platform. The factors that make you "like" more, click more, open apps more, and drive more revenue (Twitter, Facebook and Google are businesses, after all) are the same factors that make these platforms vulnerable to interference. While celebrating their changing-the-world status, each company should have better balanced public impact against the bottom line in prioritizing the technical challenges they invested in solving.

Why isn't it enough for the companies to come up with their own self-regulatory solution to this problem?

Two problems: consistency and enforcement. Allowing each platform to define their own standards would only make it harder for voters to have a consistent understanding of who is trying to influence them. Imagine the chaos if every TV station had different rules for how ads are disclosed and documented. Second, their options for holding bad actors accountable are extremely limited. If someone is subverting the electoral process or committing any other crime, enforcement can't be limited to suspending a social media account. Regulators must set common standards, but shouldn't be overly prescriptive. The platforms should have room to find the creative implementations.

Does the proposed Honest Ads Act fully solve the problem at hand?

No. It's a start, and I hope it will pass in time for the 2018 midterms. But it is in many ways just a catch-up measure, bringing social media in line with out-of-date regulation of other media. The current system makes it nearly impossible to really trace the flow of money. You're stuck searching and stitching together myriad FEC reports and TV station public files, and even then only have a part of the picture. With more and more donations made and ads bought instantly by credit card, we still accept lengthy delays in disclosure. Senate candidates still file their financial reports on paper. When you stop to think about how much complexity gets resolved in an instant every time we pick up our smartphones, it boggles the mind that our visibility into how our democracy is influenced is so perilously stuck in the last century.

What else should internet platforms and social networks be doing going forward?

These companies represent the greatest concentration of talent on the planet for addressing complex, connective data challenges. If policymakers step up to set real-time, easy transparency as the expectation, these minds should respond with technical solutions as creative as those that have so changed our world in the last decade.