How will the Internet change political advertising?


Welcome to 2016. Analysts have predicted that this campaign season is going to be the first ever to see massive investment in online advertising — reaching an expected $1 billion in spending by November. Sure, that’s only a fraction of what will be spent on television broadcast ads — estimated to be a record $6 billion this year — but online spending this year will still be more than twice the amount spent on the Internet in the past four election cyclescombined.

The Internet is rapidly transforming our political campaigns. But as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter further entrench people into “echo chambers” where they hear more and more of the things they already agree with, is that a good thing?

There are a number of reasons a shift toward online advertising will have a huge impact on how people consume political media:

  • It’s cheap and easy to implement. Anyone, in theory, has equal access to having a voice online.
  • There’s no limit to airtime on the Internet. A candidate’s reach is bounded only by the following they can build.
  • Companies such as Alphabet and Facebook can use data to let sophisticated advertisers target voters at a granular level. As a result, advertisers can tailor their messages to closely fit voters’ perspectives viewpoints, which theoretically will let candidates effectively mobilize specific populations to spend money or vote.

So far, the Federal Election Commission has refused to expand its scope to regulating online ads. Political action committees are required to disclose who’s behind the ads only if they were bought on websites. At the moment, free online media accounts — such as YouTube, Facebook or Instagram — are fairly unregulated territory.

The result is a media environment in which consumers receive information that’s increasingly designed specifically for them — but they might not be able to tell where it’s coming from.

We got a taste of the controversies that might arise from political advertising in the 2012 election, when a super PAC named “Checks and Balances for Economic Growth” posted two videos on YouTube attacking President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) for their positions on coal. Both of the videos noted that they were paid for by the super PAC, but the group never reported any spending related the videos. In response to a complaint, the FEC decided in a 3-to-3 ruling not to investigate the super PAC.

Critics argued that the decision foreshadowed a Wild West Internet ruled by mysterious “billionaire players or dark-money groups” that can target and trace voters without their knowledge. Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub warned that political advertising may “effectively be going underground.”

Conservatives say regulating YouTube videos would be an unnecessary intrusion into the Internet. Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman rejected the notion that “dark money” groups could take over the Web,arguing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “unlike the expensive television-ad buys targeted by campaign-finance reforms of the 1970s, free and low-cost Internet postings are not corrupting because no large expenditures of money are necessary. On the Internet, well-expressed ideas can find an audience without cost barriers.”

The debate seems to boil down to two values: transparency and free speech. Conservatives want to place the onus of being informed on voters; liberals doubt that voters are prepared, and therefore want more regulation.

This is still an emerging question in the 2016 cycle, but how will spending look in a couple of decades? Advertising markets outside the political sphere have already bumped online campaigns to 30 percent or 50 percent of total spending. As young people continue to enter the electorate, we can only assume digital ads will become more prevalent.

What are the potential dangers of political media transitioning to the Internet? How will this affect how players fund campaigns, and how will it change the way candidates frame their messaging to supporters? Should the FEC create new rules to make online advertising more transparent — and is it even possible?

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Robert Gebelhoff

Robert Gebelhoff contributes to The Washington Post's Opinions section.

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