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A cloak of mystery often shrouds the inner workings of technological giants, but sometimes clarity is in plain sight. A Virginia Tech research team recently uncovered conclusive details about the roles Facebook, Google, and the Federal Election Commission played in digital advertising around the U.S. presidential election of 2016.
Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Jordan Wolf, a 2018 graduate of Virginia Tech's master's program in communication, collaborated on the first academic research study to look specifically at how Facebook and Google deadlocked the Federal Election Commission's efforts to regulate digital political advertising.
Haenschen - Wolf - Facebook - Google - Disclaimer
Haenschen and Wolf wanted to know what motivated Facebook and Google to seek disclaimer exemptions from the Federal Election Commission and why the independent regulatory agency failed to regulate digital advertisements leading up to the 2016 election. Their study—recently published by Telecommunications Policy, the International Journal of Digital Economy, Data Sciences and New Media—explored how the two platforms avoided disclosing who paid for advertisements related to the election.
The research team analyzed digitized versions of primary-source documents on the Federal Election Commission's website to understand how Facebook, Google, and the commission perceived the need for online advertising disclaimers before the election. The authors searched through advisory opinions, which are official commission responses to questions about the application of federal campaign finance law to specific situations. The team identified three advisory opinions comprising 114 documents relevant to their study.
Analysis - Haenschen - Wolf - Themes - Platforms
The analysis by Haenschen and Wolf uncovered persistent themes. The platforms showed, for example, both a desire to maximize profit and a leaning toward technological constraints as an excuse for noncompliance—or a lack of willingness to change advertisement sizes to accommodate disclaimers. The authors also noted two other themes: the potential for digital ads to deceive the public and the use of...
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