15 researchers propose a new standard for advertising disclosure
Erika Franklin Fowler is Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, where she leads the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), which tracks and analyzes real-time political advertising during elections.
Jason Chuang is a researcher at Mozilla.
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Pichai and Mr. Spiegel: We now need universal transparency for digital advertisements!
The negative social effects of discriminatory ad targeting and delivery are well known, as are the social costs of disinformation and exploitative ad content. The prevalence of this damage has been repeatedly demonstrated by our research. At the same time, the vast majority of digital advertisers are responsible actors who are just trying to connect with their customers and grow their business.
Many advertising platforms recognize the severity of the problems with digital ads, but have taken different approaches to addressing these problems. We feel that platforms need to keep improving their advertiser and ad review procedures, but it is clear that this is not a problem that advertising platforms can solve on their own as they themselves acknowledge. The verification by the platforms alone does not work. Public visibility of all ads, including ad spend and targeting information, is necessary in order for advertisers to be held accountable if they mislead or tamper with users.
Our research has shown:
- The system design of the advertising platform enables advertisers to discriminate against users based on their gender, race and other sensitive attributes.
- Optimizing platform ad delivery can be discriminatory, regardless of whether advertisers try to set inclusive preferences for the ad audience.
- Ad serving algorithms can lead to polarization and make it difficult for political campaigns to reach voters with different political views.
- Sponsors spent more than $ 1.3 billion on digital political ads, but the disclosure is extremely inadequate. Current voluntary archives do not prevent intentional or accidental deception of users.
We believe that having visibility into ad content, targeting, and delivery can be effective in mitigating many of the potential harms of digital ads, while not requiring strict guidelines or enforcement. Many of the largest advertising platforms agree; Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snapchat all have some sort of ad archive. The problem is that many of these archives are incomplete, poorly implemented, difficult to access for researchers, and have very different formats and modes of access. We are proposing a new standard for universal ad disclosure that every platform that publishes digital ads should adhere to. If all platforms commit to our proposed universal standard for ad transparency, it means a level playing field for platforms and advertisers, data for researchers, and a safer internet for all.
The public deserves full transparency of all digital advertising. We want to acknowledge that what we propose will be an important endeavor for platforms and advertisers. However, we believe that the social harm currently being carried by users everywhere far outweighs the burden of overall platform transparency for ad platforms and advertisers. Users deserve real visibility into all of the ads they are bombarded with every day. We have created a detailed description of which data should be made transparent, which you can find here.
We researchers are ready to make our contribution. The time for universal ad transparency is now.
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 Nyhan, Dartmouth College
Nate Persily, Stanford University
Travis Ridout, Washington State University
Kathleen Searles, Louisiana State University
Rebekah Tromble, George Washington University
Abby Wood, University of Southern California