Disinformation 2020: Political Ads In The Digital Age

Mar 4, 2020, 10:40 AM | Updated: 11:28 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — As an increasing number of Americans are cutting the cord and watching TV on streaming services like Hulu and YouTube TV, you may be surprised to learn that federal election laws have yet to catch up with our viewing habits in this digital age.

Where you view a political advertisement absolutely matters. Those political ads that air online do not have to follow the same rules that political ads do on broadcast television. There are rules that have traditionally been followed on broadcast television.

“Political ads on KSL are highly regulated because we’re a broadcaster. We are a licensee of federal spectrum and, as a result, the regulations they could put in place apply to us,” Mike Dowdle, the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Bonneville International Corporation, said. “They don’t apply to anybody but broadcasters.”

In fact, Dowdle – who works at KSL TV – says transparency is required with every political ad a station airs, so much so, they have to keep a record of each political ad buy with what’s called a “Candidate Advertisement Agreement Form.” The disclosure form has to be signed by a treasurer of a candidate’s campaign, acknowledging they approved the broadcast, disclosing who they are, and identifying who is purchasing the ad.

The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, can keep tabs on television ads, too.

“The government is looking at them. They’re going to raise issues with them,” added Dowdle.

Because candidates want to reach as many people as possible, it makes sense that campaigns are moving their ads online.

President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to post a video ad for his re-election campaign.

It’s important to remember, however, online those “disclosure and transparency” requirements don’t apply online.

“None of them are regulated like we are,” Dowdle said regarding political ads that appear online – whether on social media, streaming services, or any other digital platform, for that matter.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank says Americans need to pay close attention to the motive behind online political ads – especially those ads that never identify where they’re coming from or if the group is simply unrecognizable.

“Sometimes those are just variations of the ads that you see on TV and sometimes they are entirely different. Sometimes they’re from groups that aren’t even affiliated with the campaign at all. And so it’s very hard to know who’s producing that information and what their intent in in showing it is,” Burbank said.

“Campaigns have become more sophisticated in how they use media,” he added.

So, if an ad doesn’t identify who or what’s behind it? Proceed with caution.

“We don’t have any idea what they’re really up to or who’s funding them and so, the problem with those kinds of ads is they’re just a big question mark,” Burbank explained. “The primary takeaway, I think, is both to view those with skepticism yourself, but also what I would say very strongly is don’t share those on social media.”

If you recognize the source of a political ad as coming from a campaign or political party that you recognize, Burbank says you should evaluate the message as you see fit.

A ‘KSL Investigates’ Experiment On Streaming Services

In order to obtain a better understanding of how often political ads are popping up on streaming devices, the KSL Investigators logged into multiple streaming services in the week ahead of Super Tuesday – including YouTube-TV, Hulu, Sling, and Amazon – from multiple user accounts, to find out which ads we could catch.

In about 12 hours fast forwarding through various television shows on these streaming services, we came across more than 50 ads for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg. According to Marketwatch, Bloomberg has spent $216 million in ads in Super Tuesday states, including Utah.

Sanders is the next closest campaign spender, totaling $16 million.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Visit KSLInvestigates.com to submit your tip, so we can get working for you. You Ask. KSL Investigates.

Related Links

Helpful information from the Federal Election Commission 

March 3, 2020: Election 2020

March 3, 2020: Is It Possible To Get A Do-Over If You Already Voted For Klobuchar Or Buttigieg?

Feb. 27, 2020: AP-NORC Poll: Election Security, Integrity Worry Americans

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Disinformation 2020: Political Ads In The Digital Age