Social media

Is social media ready for the 2018 elections?

social media tools on phone (Vasin Lee/

Social media companies have taken steps to improve their policies governing political advertising and misinformation.

But in the absence of congressional action and with some of the most challenging issues remaining unaddressed, the upcoming midterms elections are something of a litmus test for how effective these initial steps really are.

At a Sept. 20 event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director, said that while her company has taken steps, it’s viewing the 2018 elections as “a good milestone” before the 2020 presidential election.

“We’re not going to really be able to know the effect of the changes that we and other platforms are making, honestly, until after 2020,” she said. “We are barely at the start of this.… This is always going to be a continuous thing for us to try to figure out.”

Harbath said there are two areas Facebook is “very much struggling with” -- differentiating between foreign influence and intercountry discourse and addressing authenticity and digital organizing.

“In thinking about regulation, I truly hope regulators don’t just think this is like, ‘Let’s just make sure ads have to have disclaimers, and be done with it,’ because that is barely scratching the surface,” Harbath said.  She added that her hope is to find an “equilibrium” between making sure Facebook is stopping misinformation while maintaining user experience  “over the next five to 10 years.”

And with less than two months before the 2018 elections, it doesn’t appear Congress will pass new legislation aimed at curbing disinformation on social media platforms or regulating the companies themselves.

Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor focusing on election law and the democratic process, pointed out that federal agencies, namely the Federal Election Commission, lack the clout and effectiveness to impose new regulations.

“In some ways, the most important decisions that are regulating political communication are being made by private companies, as opposed to the government,” he said.

Tara McGowan and Tad Rupp, who work for Democratic and Republican campaign firms respectively, each noted that this Congress isn’t equipped to write regulations properly addressing the problems that arose in the 2016 elections.

On the marketing side, McGowan, who co-founded the digital ad firm ACRONYM after working as a digital producer for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said the new regulations have “deeply” changed the way she’s had to go about political advertising.  Facebook requested passport and Social Security information for all who’d be placing ads on the site, she noted.

In addition to some of the technical challenges around social media companies’ hurried response, McGowan said, “one of the challenges around this is that [the companies] are not all doing it in the same ways at the same time.”

Rupp, who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and is now a partner at the Republican advertising firm Targeted Victory, said one important change for the 2018 cycle is that “voters are at least aware of this.”

But for all the changes targeted at making political advertising more transparent than in 2016, there’s a concern they don’t address the core problem of misinformation.

Persily said he’d like to see government “establish some kind of entity that is responsible for this problem” and work with social media companies, plan for the future and balance constitutional concerns.

“To have some body that is responsible is absolutely prerequisite,” he said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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