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Most Americans say political campaigns should not be able to target people with digital ads based on their data, according to new polling released this morning.
The research from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation reveals most Americans favor greater regulation of ads that are pushed to select groups of people based on personal data such as zip code, age, gender and education.
Here are the key findings:
- Americans are taking a hard line against microtargeting: 72 percent say Internet companies not make any information about their users available to political campaigns. This view is shared roughly equally by Democrats (69%), independents (72%) and Republicans (75%).
- They also want the companies to remove outright falsehoods: 81 percent say that political ads containing clear falsehoods — such as the wrong day to vote — should be prohibited by the tech companies. But the landscape gets more complicated when it comes to ads that omit facts or misrepresentations. Forty-five percent say those should be refused, while 40 percent say they should be allowed to run with a disclaimer posted by the company.
- They want greater ad transparency: 59 percent say websites should be able to show political ads, so long as the companies disclose who paid for them, how much the ad cost and whom the ad is aimed at.
The polling is a rare measure of public sentiment as candidates pour millions of dollars into microtargeted ads ahead of the 2020 elections. It could ramp up pressure on the Federal Election Commission and Congress to update political ad rules for the digital era.
Neither have taken significant action on this front – even as tech companies' collection of highly personal data has become an increasingly valuable tool for campaigns in recent years.
The Knight Foundation hopes that this data can be a resource in the debate. “From a policy perspective, we really seem to be kind of winging it as a society," said John Sands, who serves as the Knight Foundation's director of learning and impact. "Decision-makers within the companies and policymakers in government have staked out different positions. So we just want to make sure that the policymakers have all the information they need to be able to make decisions in the public interest.”
In the absence of greater federal regulation, the companies have been dictating the rules on political ads themselves. And they've taken very different strategies.
Twitter for instance banned political ads from its service. Google adopted some limitations on the data that campaigns can use to target ads, blocking candidates from targeting narrow slices of users based on their political affiliation. Facebook has taken perhaps the most hands-off approach to the ads. It's allowing politicians to lie in ads – and arguing that journalists and researchers should fact-check politicians, not the company. This gets even more complicated since it's also allowing microtargeting, despite warnings from researchers that it's more difficult for them to fact-check tailored ads because there can be so many different messages running simultaneously on the service.
“The platform companies are so intimately involved in decision-making process now about how political information is disseminated and what constitutes political information,” Sands said. “These decisions seem to be being made without the benefit of sound, independent, reputable research."
“We want to make sure that as these decisions get made, that they're being done transparently and in a way where the American people know where they stand," Sands added.
These ads have been a politically perilous issue for the tech giants in the Trump era. Facebook has come under fire for not taking action against the President's ads containing falsehoods, such as one promoting falsehoods about former vice president Joe Biden's links to Ukraine. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have criticized Facebook's handling of these ads.
During divided political times, the apparent public support for greater regulation of political ads on both sides of the aisle underscores why more politicians are talking about regulating the platforms, Sands said. There's a growing “techlash” at both the state and federal level, as lawmakers from both parties propose antitrust and privacy regulation.
“It really highlights why so many policymakers are coming to the table now with proposals about some of the issues surrounding digital platforms,” Sands said. “And it just underscores the importance of these issues to everyday Americans.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: About 2 million tweets pushed conspiracy theories about the coronavirus over the three-week period when the disease began to spread outside of China, according to an unreleased report from an arm of the State Department obtained by my colleague Tony Romm. The report raises new concerns about the tech industry's readiness to fight a surge of dangerous disinformation online.
The posts floated a wide range of conspiracy theories, including that the virus was the result of a bioweapon or was created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These and other false posts represented 7 percent of the total tweets the government studied and were “potentially impactful on the broader social media conversation,” according to the report.
The Global Engagement Center, the propaganda-fighting program at the State Department whose name appears on the document, focused its analysis on countries outside the United States from Jan. 20 to Feb. 10. The Global Engagement Center studied 29 million foreign posts, the report said.
Some of the false posts displayed “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity,” according to the report, raising the possibility that foreign governments or other bad actors could have intentionally attempted to spread fear and division about the health emergency — much like Russian agents did during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But the report didn't detail what led to that conclusion or attribute it to a specific government source.
NIBBLES: Ride-hailing service and delivery drivers are bracing for the coronavirus outbreak, my colleague Nitasha Tiku reports. These independent contractors don't have basic benefits — and one Lyft driver tells Nitasha that the company has not communicated with them about covid-19, despite the risk of infection.
“No support, no advice, no guidance regarding what we do if we suspect any indicators of the problem,” Edan Alva, who drives full-time for Lyft in the Bay Area, told my colleague.
He added that he has been spraying his car with Lysol twice a day. Drivers have been scrubbing down their cars “inch by inch” between rides at Bay Area airport parking lots, Alva said.
As coronavirus spreads globally, some companies are instructing employees to stop traveling or to work remotely. But the tens of thousands of gig workers are likely to be particularly vulnerable.
“With the gig economy specifically, it’s full of low-income, independent contractors who don’t have very good health insurance,” said Alex Rosenblat, the author of “Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work” and research lead for the nonprofit organization Data & Society. “They’re not going to have better protections than anyone else, but they may have higher risk.”
Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna told Nitasha there is no sign of a unique risk to Lyft drivers and that the company is monitoring the situation. However, Uber and Instacart have sent alerts to their contractors.
Uber sent drivers an in-app alert that included standard advice from health officials, such as to wash their hands or stay home if they feel sick. The company also encouraged drivers to disinfect frequently touched surfaces in their cars. Instacart's advisory included similar recommendations.
BYTES: A prominent Wall Street Journal hedge fund with a stake in Twitter may call for the replacement of co-founder Jack Dorsey, Michael J. de la Merced and Kate Conger report for the New York Times. Elliott Management's stake in the company is reportedly worth $1 billion, and it nominated four candidates for Twitter's board ahead of a deadline last Sunday.
The fund's main concern is that Dorsey is currently splitting his time between chief executive roles at Twitter and the payments company Square.
“Dorsey’s divided attention has been a longstanding area of concern for investors in the technology company, whose business and stock price have grown in recent years — but more slowly than its social media competitors,” the Times reports.
Investors have raised concerns that Twitter has not produced new products. Its core social network remains prominent and is Trump's preferred bully pulpit, but it's struggling to keep pace with flashy upstart rivals such as TikTok.
Dorsey was also not “a regular presence” at Twitter’s San Francisco office for much of 2019, the Times reports. He made it a point to travel the world, including to visit more than 30 of Twitter’s global offices.
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— Coming up:
- Nava Public Benefit Corporation will host a conversation moderated by the Technology 202's Cat Zakrzewsk on "Impact at Scale: From Big Tech to Civic Tech" at 6pm on March 10.
- SXSW will take place in Austin March 13-22.
- The Game Developers Conference will take place in San Francisco March 16-20.