So the other day I was reading this article about the European Union trying to put forward rules for political Ads transparency, and I had a very big reflection moment about the battle that’s been going on for a while towards this subject. So here I will go ahead and share with you my (highly controversial) opinion on whether it is a good idea or not to keep pushing transparency on political advertising campaigns.
It’s not brand new information that for a while Political Marketing has been made go more and more transparent by, for example, explicitly telling people whose campaign it is that they are seeing. This sort of Branded Content strategy has made it very common to see lines like “This Campaign is Advertised/Paid For/Launched by whoever Campaign’s it is” in order to make sure people have access to the information someone decided they needed.
Nevertheless, Facebook decided they needed to one-up the current regulations for Political Advertising. They decided to have a new requirement which is to see the legal part of the Campaign and the people running it and make it transparent for the users that see the Ads. Specifically, they figured it was essential to see where the people running the Campaigns were from. This way, whenever a user sees an Ad about their country’s elections, they can know if the person running it is local or a random foreign dude trying to mess up with their democracy.
A fun tangent I’d like to go through here is how sure Facebook is that people will judge Ads based on their owner’s locations. Of course, people have prejudices, but given the world is now more globalized than ever, isn’t it a little old school to create a whole set of requirements putting as priority number one which nationality the Ad has? This whole transparency strategy seems based on the fact that, if someone that was not born in your country or is not currently there is running a Political Advertising Campaign, it necessarily has to be because they want to take your country down. Of course, it’s not a possibility that they were maybe hired to do it.
Getting back to my original point, I can understand Facebook believing this idea it’s a great way to assure transparency and let people make their “own thoughts”, but how naive are they? As cynical as this may sound, people, if they are motivated, will always find the way to escape the “proper way to do it” and find a way around it. If someone is really trying to mess up some other country’s elections and don’t want them to see it’s them that is running the Ad, all they have to do is hire someone to use their IP or travel to the country of choice, get a computer there and just make Facebook believe you are as much local as any other. And this was just my first thought, but there must be a lot of other ways to just make this new requirement work for your convenience.
Of course, this does not just apply to this case scenario or to a very specific type of person or country. Actually, I believe it’s quite the opposite. Human beings are what they are, not to get all philosophical about this, but most people will always, even if it’s slightly, go out of the way to get away with whatever it is they want. It happens with all aspects, so why would this be any different?
Particularly here, since the way around the law happens to require money, we have an even more twisted consequence: Avoiding full transparency will become a rich privilege and isn’t it even more dangerous? Let’s say that some guy in Country A is trying to burn Country B to the ground and chooses to do it by running a Political Campaign and winning the elections. This guy’s advertising campaign will, necessarily, hit Facebook’s transparency wall and he’ll have two options depending on his budget. If he’s just a poor activist who did everything he did out of convictions but couldn’t really handle the plan, he will have to move aside and find a new conviction to fight for because his lack of money won’t let him go around Facebook’s requirements. On the other hand, if our guy is an amazingly rich huge magnate who can literally do whatever he wants, you think he’ll hesitate before getting away with Facebook’s policy? No, he won’t. He’ll get his way and then he’ll be even more sure that everything in this world is his to take.
So we can be sure this sort of strategy is what we call an “Arms Race” because there’s literally no stopping it. Facebook (and the EU, and the governments, and the market, and everyone involved) will always find more ways to pressure the Political Marketing areas to go fully transparent by adding new fancy twisted requirements for the Ad Campaigns to follow and the Advertisers will always find a new creative expensive way around it. They can go on and on forever and this pushing and pushing will only lead to one thing: Making Political Advertising and Advertisers even harder to detect due to the sophisticated technologies and solutions that they’ll end up finding.
There’s a saying that goes: “Better the Devil you Know” which fits perfectly here. Neither Facebook nor the Advertisers are the good guys here, but what’s the use of trying harder and harder to get full transparency when we know that’s a fully utopic ideal? The more they push, the more hermetic the Campaign will actually get. So my conclusion here is very simple: I’m not against requirements to improve transparency, I believe users have all the right to use the internet to have minds of their own, but probably we still haven’t found the correct way to do it. Maybe this will take years of back and forth between platforms and advertisers, but all we know for now is that the pushing and one-upping strategy these guys are taking can only lead us to one place: An impossible scenario to place Ads in and an extremely difficult situation to detect (lack of) transparency in.