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What You Need To Know About Digital Ads This Week

By Melissa Ryan

Facebook’s decision to let politicians run ads that contain disinformation isn’t going well, and there are multiple developments to keep track of. 

Here’s what happened this week: 

  • Hundreds of Facebook employees have signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg decrying the ads policy, insisting that “free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.” and offering a proposal for improvement that’s both comprehensive and reasonable. There are rumors that a compromise, as a response to the letter and shareholder concerns, will be announced soon but as of publication time, nothing is confirmed. 
  • Activist Adriel Hampton filed to run for Governor of California so that he could run ads with disinformation as an act of protest. Facebook, which has continually refused to define who is and isn’t a politician under their policy, determined that Hampton isn’t one.
  • Meanwhile at least three supporters of QAnon are running for Congress in 2020. At this point, I doubt any of them have the budget to buy Facebook ads but eventually one of them will and Facebook will have to determine if candidates who follow QAnon are allowed to run ads that spread the conspiracy theory and the disinformation that goes along with it.
  • Twitter will no longer run political ads from candidates or issue groups. CEO Jack Dorsey announced this in a surprisingly nuanced Twitter thread this week that I highly recommend reading. Dorsey takes a potshot at Facebook, but he also points out (as did the Facebook employees who signed the open letter) that free expression and paid reach aren’t the same thing.
  • Some of the Democratic campaigns are unhappy and alarmed that Facebook announced it had taken down disinformation operations targeting Democratic candidates but didn’t bother reaching out to alert the targeted candidates or the Democratic National Committee. 

I continue to be stunned that this is the hill Mark Zuckerberg wants to die on. Fact-checking advertisements is pretty basic stuff, and there’s a ton of precedent with every pre-digital form of media. I think part of the reason this continues to make news for Facebook is that most Americans assume that politicians and corporations aren’t allowed to run ads that aren’t true and that there are laws in place to prevent this from happening. I get that we need new election laws and regulations for digital media, but truth in advertising as a concept shouldn’t even be up for debate. And yet here we are!

As for my own thoughts, I wrote an op-ed for Buzzfeed News outlining why I think Facebook should sit the 2020 cycle out:

Dorsey and Twitter have made plenty of mistakes in recent years, but in this case, they made the right call. American democracy is in deep trouble, social media companies have violated our trust too many times to count and, at least in the US, there’s no way to regulate digital election ads — or to even ask the Federal Elections Commission, which has been effectively shut down under Republican control, to offer guidance. Without oversight, there’s no civically responsible way to allow digital ad buys. From my experience as a political strategist for Democratic candidates and advocacy groups, I believe Facebook should adopt the same policy.

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The Fringe & The Far Right: Racist Pseudoscience Conference in Norway

By Ben van der Merwe

On 2 November far-right activists and crackpot “scientists” from around the world descended on Oslo for a conference on the theme of ‘Human Biodiversity’ (HBD), the latest rebranding of old school race science, which has seen a resurgence in recent years. The event highlights closer ties between international far-right activists and the pseudoscientific HBD network, with the latter openly fraternising with the former more than ever.

Read my full run-down of the event published on Friday here

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Research

  • A new study from the Stanford Internet Observatory, ‘Evidence of Russia-Linked Influence Operations in Africa’,looks at growing evidence of Russian information campaigns in the continent (not least, involving Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch “perhaps best known for running the Internet Research Agency”). 
  • A new report from Data & Society looks at the phenomenon of ‘data voids’: “search engine queries that turn up little to no results, especially when the query is rather obscure, or not searched often.” As we’ve noted in this newsletter, these are being exploited by the far right. Read the report here to find out more: Data Voids. Where Missing Data Can Easily Be Exploited. (Data & Society)

ICYMI

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Coda

Next week I’m appearing on The Bottom Line, a show about U.S. Politics for Al Jazeera English. It’s a panel discussion on disinformation and US politics, taped minutes after Twitter announced their ad change policies.

You can find broadcast times here or watch the YouTube Livestream on Tuesday at 8:30 PM ET.

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Talk to you next week!