Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, unleashed a frenzy of commentary when he went Pontius Pilate and effectively washed his hands of the false advertising problem online by announcing his platform would no longer take political ads. But perhaps the most alarming reaction came from Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, who called on social media giants to "stop the practice of microtargeting" ads on their platforms.
As someone who has worked on multiple state and federal election campaigns, I found such comments from the highest campaign regulatory official in the country counterproductive and anti-democratic. Such a radical proposal would limit speech, reward millionaire candidates, protect incumbents and, worst of all, limit the newfound interest and participation in U.S. elections.
Under the Weintraub proposal, campaigns could not use data to identify smaller audiences for ad delivery. Instead, social media giants would only accept ads targeting "large . . . geographic areas." A Senate candidate could narrow an appeal only to voters in a county, no longer communicating to a more specific segment of voters within that county.
Such limits would force campaigns to return to the old strategy of carpet-bombing the airwaves with expensive and annoying TV ads just to talk to the 3% to 5% of reliable voters who are "persuadable" (read: late-deciding and frequently least informed). This is how TV-heavy campaigns have been run for decades, and research shows it led to a 20-year decline in voter participation pre-microtargeting.
Most modern campaigns have solved the resource scarcity dilemma. No longer do you have to ignore wide swaths of the electorate to speak to small numbers that always vote and are persuadable. Using data science, campaigns deliver targeted, specific messages to each voter about issues he or she cares about.
That ability to target on multiple specific and real issues, rather than vague messages that work generically, incentivizes politicians to have plans for, make commitments about and campaign on a much wider variety of concerns. Real problems have been solved because research leading to targeted ads found issues worth addressing.
Further, the cost is a fraction of expensive TV advertising, which mitigates the advantage millionaires and incumbents have in elections.
Since the adoption of individualized campaign analytics, turnout has skyrocketed. 2016 saw a 6% bump in turnout from 2012 - an increase of more than 8 million voters. In the 2018 midterms, 35 million more voters participated than in the 2014 midterms, and 27 million more voters than in 2010 (despite the tea party wave that year).
Unlike typical wave elections, in which one side is motivated and the other side depressed, campaigns from both parties have increased interest through direct, data-driven appeals that spoke directly to each voter. More reluctant voters, previously ignored by most campaigns, are now included in digital advertising that address them directly. Developing new ways to convince people that voting is worthwhile is the primary task of campaign sciences.
In 2008, the Obama campaign was on the leading edge of data-driven appeals and the impact of their effort was dramatic. With strong appeals to minorities and low-turnout Democratic voters, the Obama team drove up turnout by almost 6 million from 2004. The effort, which has become more sophisticated since, was good for democracy; Weintraub's proposal would make it illegal.
She claims banning "microtargeting" would "unite us" and that advertisers "would have incentive to avoid fueling the divisiveness that pulls us apart." Perhaps she missed President Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy ad" or the "Willie Horton ad" from 1988. If anything, targeting encourages more issue-oriented appeals rather than shocking messages that transcend sub-groups. In fact, microtargeting has made politics more personal.
Moreover, the renaissance of online organizing for political causes - from climate change to gun control to abortion - would not have been feasible without the ability to target those likely to agree. Again, Weintraub's proposal would shut that down for all but the most well-funded organizations.
Every segment of the economy, not just campaigns, uses data analytics to communicate directly to their constituents, clients and customers. Addressing false ads in a free society does not require constraints on speech, but rather transparency on the part of the advertiser, as Facebook now requires through full disclosure. In fact, with transparency, microtargeted ads are equally likely to be true as broadly delivered ads.
Such transparency rules - now in place on Facebook - likely would have exposed the foreign interference in 2016. Weintraub's proposal, on the other hand, wouldn't have had the same effect, as the Russian campaign was largely geographically targeted.
My hope is that other social media and Internet giants place their marker in the ground for transparency rather than shutting down their platforms or limiting tools that make campaigns more relevant to individual voters. By eliminating the millionaire's advantage and making campaigns more individually targeted, they can better serve free speech and democracy.
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Wilson is partner and chief executive of WPA Intelligence and former director of analytics and digital strategy for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.