Erika Franklin Fowler is a professor of government at Wesleyan University, where she directs the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), which tracks and analyzes political advertising in real time during elections.
Jason Chuang is a Mozilla Researcher.
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Pichai and Mr. Spiegel: Now we need universal digital advertising transparency!
The negative social impacts of targeting and posting discriminatory ads are well known, as are the social costs of misinformation and exploitative ad content. Our research has repeatedly shown the prevalence of these damages. At the same time, the vast majority of digital advertisers are responsible actors looking only to connect with their customers and grow their businesses.
Many ad platforms recognize the seriousness of problems with digital ads, but have taken different approaches to address these problems. While we believe that platforms should continue to strengthen their monitoring procedures for advertisers and ads, it is clear that this is not a problem that advertising platforms can solve themselves, as they themselves recognize. The control carried out by the platforms alone does not work; Public transparency of all ads, including ad spend and targeting information, is necessary so that advertisers can be held accountable when they mislead or manipulate users.
Our research has shown:
- The design of the ad platform system allows advertisers to discriminate against users based on their gender, race, and other sensitive attributes.
- Optimizing the delivery of ads on the platform can be discriminatory, regardless of whether advertisers try to set audience preferences for inclusive ads.
- Ad serving algorithms can cause polarization and make it difficult for political campaigns to reach voters with different political views.
- Sponsors have spent more than $ 1.3 billion on digital political ads, but the disclosure is largely inappropriate. Today’s voluntary archives do not prevent intentional or accidental deception of users.
While it is not a replacement for strict policies and strict enforcement, we believe that transparency in ad content, targeting, and delivery can effectively mitigate many of the potential harms of digital ads. Many of the largest ad platforms agree; Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snapchat have some kind of ad archive. The problem is that many of these files are incomplete, poorly implemented, difficult for researchers to access, and have very different formats and access methods. We propose a new standard for universal ad serving that all digital ad serving platforms must adhere to. If all platforms are committed to the universal standard of advertising transparency that we propose, it will mean a level playing field for platforms and advertisers, data for researchers and a safer Internet for all.
The public deserves the full transparency of all digital advertising. We want to recognize that what we propose will be an important undertaking for platforms and advertisers. However, we believe that the societal harms currently endured by users everywhere far outweigh the burden that universal advertising transparency would place on advertising platforms and advertisers. Users deserve true transparency in all the ads they are bombarded with every day. We have created a detailed description of what data needs to be made transparent, which you can find here.
Researchers are ready to do our part. The time has come for universal advertising transparency.
Jason Chuang, Mozilla, Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield, Laura Edelson, New York University, Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University, Michael Franz, Bowdoin College, Archon Fung, Harvard University, Sheila Krumholz, Center for Responsive Politics, Ben Lyons, University of Utah, Gregory Martin, Stanford University, Brendan College Nyhan, Travis Ridout University, Kathleen Searles Washington State University, Louisiana State University Rebekah Tromble, George Washington Abby Wood University, University of Southern California