We tend to think of social media as a free service; that’s what made it such a miracle at first. All that content, information, and connection with friends, and you don’t have to pay a dime! In 2018, a Republican senator infamously asked Mark Zuckerberg during a Congressional hearing how Facebook could provide the services it does for free. Zuckerberg’s terse response will go down in history: “Senator, we run ads.”2
To Zuckerberg’s credit, he was telling the truth: according to their annual financial report, 97.9% of Facebook’s revenue in 2020 came from advertising. What makes this particular kind of advertising special is that it’s based on your behavior—and on social media, there are a lot of datapoints on how you behave. It’s legal and valuable for Facebook to track all of the Couch to 5k groups you’ve joined, or for Google to see that you need directions to the nearest pet store. They then put you in a user interest group and sell automated access to your group based on your behavioral data—you’re the type of person who is interested in running and you own a cat—to the hundreds of thousands of companies that are part of the adtech world. And the sole responsibility of these companies is to programmatically send out your information to as many businesses as possible in order to show you a relevant ad in real time.3
What happens when ads come into contact with our political beliefs? Well, we know what happened on January 6th in Washington, DC. In response, Facebook set a moratorium on political ads, which has been lifted as of March.4 Supporters of keeping political ads have argued that even as a ban prevents the spread of advertising related to dangerous political disinformation, it keeps out good actors who are trying to get the truth out.5
But the problem isn’t political ads themselves: it’s that behavioral advertising enables people who are already at risk of falling for misinformation to be targeted even further. If you’ve already fallen prey to misinformation spread by your friends or news organizations, the advertising content you see will just reinforce your beliefs; it’s a perfect storm of influencing tactics where you’re being fed lies from multiple avenues. In their 2018 report “Weaponizing the Digital Influence Machine,” the research organization Data & Society wrote that “like beauty product marketers, political advertisers – those aiming to influence political discourse, sentiments around public issues, or political behaviors from voting to attending marches or calling representatives – are able to sift through data streams to identify prime points of vulnerability.” On the internet, our truest selves are completely exposed. Targeted ads prey on that. And unless we make a change, it’s going to keep getting worse.
Legislation and adjudication are not the keys to ending misinformation. It is simply an attempt to try to stem the deluge of harmful information that we’re seeing today. An internet that prioritizes mitigating misinformation would have to be the effort of a broad coalition—from journalists, to technologists, to citizens, to educators, and yes, to legislators too.
It’s easy to think that such an internet will never happen. After all, the internet began as a public service, only to be sublimated by predatory practices, privacy infringements, and more. Governments are only now taking a closer look at these issues, thirty years too late. People are being radicalized faster than we can track them. We are on the edge of a new era, one that is potentially more dangerous than ever.
But I actually believe we can make this new era a better one. More people than ever are confronting the ways in which click-driven content harms people. My parents, who are immigrants in their 70s, look for multiple sources and ask me to fact-check the news articles they read. I’ve taken part in crowdsourcing efforts to spot misinformation from small election protection nonprofits to companies like Twitter. I’ve listened to dozens of academics speak about the problems of algorithmic injustice and radicalization. And perhaps most surprisingly, I’ve heard lawmakers on both sides of the aisle express a real desire to regulate tech companies, even if they disagree on exactly how to do it.
People around the world are demanding a better internet, and that’s how I know it’s possible. We can get there if we keep pushing legislators and technology giants to prioritize our well-being and protect us from harm, making sure technologists are aware of the pitfalls of the products they create, and prioritizing business models that provide real services instead of manipulated ones.
Map 3: What is real-time bidding and what does it have to do with ads?