Why Facebook, Google Advertising During 2016 Presidential Election Lacked Paid-For Disclaimers

A Virginia Tech research team has recently released details from its investigation into the roles that Facebook and Google played in digital advertising around the U.S. presidential election in 2016. The tech companies reportedly stopped the Federal Election Commission's efforts to regulate digital political advertising at that time.

Since the election, both companies have made political ad spend more transparent by creating reports that list the organization paying for the ads. Both companies also created political searchable ad-buying guidelines rather than posting the paid-for disclaimer in the advertisements.

It wasn't until May 2018 that Google began requiring election ads in the U.S. incorporate a clear disclosure of who paid for them.



Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, and Jordan Wolf, a 2018 graduate in Virginia Tech's master's program in communication, collaborated on academic research to determine why Facebook and Google sought disclaimers and why the independent regulatory agency failed to regulate digital ads — including search ads — leading up to the election.

Their study — recently published by Telecommunications Policy: The International Journal of Digital Economy, Data Sciences and New Media — suggests the two companies forced the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to deadlock along partisan lines, making it impossible to grant or deny an exemption to an emerging policy that provides greater transparency.

The research states that the two platforms refused to change their ad size to include the disclaimer. It also suggests that both companies did this to “maximize profit,” using “technological constraints as an excuse for noncompliance — or a lack of willingness to change advertisement sizes to accommodate disclaimers.”

Facebook and Google emphasize profit in their reasons for not complying or being unable to comply.

"[Google and Facebook said] they're in the business of selling digital ads and they shouldn't need to create a different product to comply with FEC guidelines for political advertisers to use," Haenschen said in a video.

Haenschen also said she does not think there will be any meaningful legislation before the next presidential cycle. 

The FEC voted to confirm that a link from the ads to information on each company’s website taking a full disclaimer was good enough to satisfy its requirements. The three Republicans on the FEC supported an exemption, while the two Democrats and an Independent found no technological justification. The vote left others with little guidance on how to comply with digital political advertising.

The research team for the study analyzed digitized versions of documents and searched through advisory opinions, which are official FEC responses to questions about the application of federal campaign finance law to specific situations.

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