Paid Political Ads Are Not the Problem. Our Perceptions Are

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey engaged in a bit of cross-platform trolling last week, announcing that his company would ban political advertising from the platform, and adding a snarky subtweet aimed at Facebook’s stated policy of tolerance for paid political misinformation. Yet there’s something very strange about the centrality of paid ads in our ongoing debate about how to grapple with viral lies and their distorting effect on democracy. Restricting this particular form of communication may be a simple solution—and one that’s easy to import from familiar debates about campaign finance in the television era—but it holds no real promise for addressing the problem. Paid ads have very little to do with how political deception spreads online, and doing away with them will likely hamper legitimate political speech.Any conversation about misinformation on social media must, of course, engage with Russia’s well-documented campaign of interference in the 2016 American presidential race. While we may never know with any certainty whether that campaign altered the outcome of the election, it’s clear that paid ads were not themselves a significant factor. As a recent report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence notes, the disinformation warriors at Russia’s Internet Research Agency spent only about $100,000 on Facebook ads over the two years leading up to the election—chicken feed in the context of national presidential campaign spending. (As a point of comparison, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the more vocal critics of Facebook’s lax approach to political ads, spent $370,000 on the platform to defend a single congressional district seat.) Moreover, very little of the IRA’s spending was on traditional political advertising: The Senate report notes that only about 5 percent of the Russian ads users saw prior to the presidential election actually referenced Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump directly.
Instead, the paid ads most often functioned to raise the profile of phony astroturf communities that formed the heart of the Russian disinformation campaign. IRA employees posing as Americans posted “organic” content to ersatz groups, which were then shared voluntarily by unwitting Facebook users. “The nearly 3,400 Facebook and Instagram advertisements the IRA purchased,” according to the SSCI report, “are comparably minor in relation to the over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets that were the original creations of IRA influence operatives, disseminated under the guise of authentic user activity.”
That dovetails with the conclusion of researchers at Oxford University who found that organic sharing of Russian disinformation dwarfed the reach of the campaign’s paid ads, with some 30 million users passing along IRA content on Facebook and Instagram from 2015 to 2017. The role of paid ads was more indirect, laying the groundwork for that sharing. The single most viewed paid ad from Russian trolls, for instance, promoted a bogus group called Back the Badge, which purported to support law enforcement officials in the face of complaints about their use of force and racialized policing practices. Other ads took the opposite approach, and promoted fake groups that mimicked real activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. Indeed, racial minorities appear to have been the groups most heavily targeted by Russia—not with ads promoting a candidate but via rhetoric designed to suppress the largely Democratic African American vote by portraying traditional electoral participation as futile and politicians from both parties as handmaidens of white supremacy.
If you’re worried about foreign governments mounting disinformation campaigns, restricting paid political advertising on social media will do almost nothing to hinder such campaigns. When foreign intelligence services want to misinform American voters, they mostly rely on Americans to do the work of spreading their messages for free.