The spirit (if not the letter) of the law that now hovers over political advertising is the equal-time provision of the Communications Act of 1934. That law stipulates that any broadcaster using the communal airwaves must provide equal time—either free, or if paid at the same price—to all qualified candidates. Most recently, its specter surfaced after then-candidate Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live, raising the horrifying possibility that 13 other presidential candidates would seek to do so as well.
The equal-time rule doesn’t apply to the internet, but the recent hubbub over Facebook’s influence on the election—in which both Hillary Clinton and Trump’s 2016 campaign digital director, Brad Parscale, chimed in—illustrates that many feel it maybe should. The spat began with an explanatory piece about how Facebook’s ads auction, which determines who pays what to reach certain people, and rewards what the company politely terms “engagement” (and what we’d call clickbait). The hypothesis is that if one candidate’s rhetoric runs to the virally vitriolic, Facebook would reward that demagoguery or divisiveness with more and cheaper media.
Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. Before turning to writing, he dropped out of a doctoral program in physics to work on Goldman Sachs’ credit trading desk, then joined the Silicon Valley startup world, where he founded his own startup (acquired by Twitter in 2011), and finally joined Facebook’s early monetization team, where he headed their targeting efforts. His 2016 memoir, Chaos Monkeys, was a New York Times best seller and NPR Best Book of the Year, and his writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. He splits his time between a sailboat on the SF Bay and a yurt in Washington’s San Juan Islands.
The transparency stakes were upped when Facebook published a time series of both campaigns’ average CPM. The plots fluctuate wildly, but they show Trump generally paying a bit more than Clinton, which seemed to defuse Parscale’s tweeted claim that Trump massively underpaid on media, but doesn’t really answer much else. (A fuller breakdown of what the Facebook data does or does not say is here.)
What’s absolutely true is that the candidates were charged different prices for media, possibly even for the same media if both were contesting swing-state voters. If the company were forced to comply with equal-time, equal-cost rules, how would it even do so?
This is a hard question to answer thanks to how internet monetization has evolved over the past couple of decades. Starting in the now-ancient history of the commercial internet during the late ’90s, online ads were sold much like the TV and radio ads that preceded them: a certain amount of real estate on a certain destination at a specified time, not very different than a Super Bowl ad. Compiled into a so-called rate card, it was the price list that ads salespeople would email around to potential advertisers, like a waiter passing out a media menu.
In that world, equal-time rules would be easy to implement (as they are on TV): whatever items one campaign ordered from the media menu would have to be immediately offered at the same price to the other.
The rise of programmatic advertising in the mid-aughts, where advertisers bid for media in vast online auctions for attention, more like a computerized stock exchange than Mad Men, changed everything. No longer were you buying a set chunk of anything—you were engaging in a ruthless, computer-powered competition for human attention, repeated billions of times a day for millions of eyeballs.
Some advertisers still speak in the old language of reach (i.e. audience size) and frequency (i.e. how many times a user got hit over the head with an ad). But the new marketers speak of CPMs or CPAs (i.e. ‘cost per action’, the cost to finally get someone to do what you wanted, either purchase or install an app). In that world, the notion of ‘equal time’ is non-existent: Facebook couldn’t sell you an ad that sat atop your Newsfeed for a certain period of time if it wanted to, other than by completely wrecking the Facebook user experience.
Thus, any notion of campaign fairness must be baked into the ads auction that’s at the core of the Facebook money machine. A first step would be to eliminate the weight of engagement on the economics. Almost by definition, an auction model that uses historical user actions such as Likes will offer different prices to different advertisers, depending on their relative charisma and/or malice. Clickbait wins when a click prediction is part of the auction economics. Remove that, and the incentive for clickbait is gone.
If Facebook neglected an ad’s history in its engagement modeling, then the estimation of that ad’s clickiness would be a pure function of either the user’s general behavior (do they click on ads often?), or exogenous factors like time of day or geography. Thus, two political ads competing for the same swing-state voter would face the same engagement estimation. Their chance of winning a certain ad auction would depend only on their own bids, plus their rank among whoever else might be bidding on that user’s attention. Facebook is no longer playing kingmaker by favoring one campaign or another and rewarding their use of extreme content. Strictly speaking, this is not in line with equal-time, equal-cost rules: the dueling campaigns could opt to overpay by bidding aggressively for one user. But Facebook’s opinion of their content is irrelevant and clickbait (and like-bait and share-bait) have been removed from the economics.
A much cruder way to accomplish this would be a hybrid solution of rate card with auction, offering both campaigns the same CPM, and let that serve as their bid at auction. They’d need to vary according to geography—Facebook ads don’t cost in Ohio what they cost in California—but equal cost would be absolutely assured.
But there, the campaigns themselves would likely balk. They want to have the control to bid on certain creative, or find some overlooked niche of customers (or voters) via clever bidding and targeting. Like Promethean fire, once technology like Facebook’s hyper-precise Custom Audiences exists, which allows targeting by almost any external data so long as it’s tied to a name or email, there’s just no going back to the old ways of the ‘rate card’ and a broad ads placement. Plus, the gamesmanship of the auction guarantees a starring role to those most capable of exploiting it (or passably claiming to, like Parscale).
We, the citizens of the republic, demand equal time for all candidates, to optimize the democratic outcome. But the contenders to that democratic outcome kind of like the ability to spar for it via clever marketing, at least so long as they win (and if they lose, ‘unfair!’ is the cry). Writing laws that give every candidate a fair shake on the media front might just be a quaint throwback to a less cutthroat era, one where we wrote laws to give every citizen a fair shake as well.
Photograph by WIRED/Getty Images