Gazette-Mail editorial: Be wary of social media political ads

If it’s in an online political ad posted on social media, it must be true.

Hopefully, that brought a cynical chuckle to readers’ lips.

This election year promises to be one for the ages for tormenting citizens through the bombardment of ads from every available medium. Most have a healthy distrust of any claims that accompany such messages, but it’s never a bad idea to remind yourself that these crafted missives aren’t typically on the level. And online ads are the worst of the lot.

Social media ads can be very loose with the truth, they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to customize to each specific user. As a report from The Associated Press recently explained, tech giants have spent years gathering personal information on their users, which allows political advertising agencies to know which buttons to push with which person — referred to as “microtargeting.” Then there are the hosts of agencies, including foreign governments, intentionally spreading misinformation through online ads with the purpose of keeping American voters at each other’s throats.

As David Karpf, a political communications professor at George Washington University, told the AP concerning online ads, “There’s now so much money and attention spent online with so few rules that, if you wanted chaos, that’s the place to go for chaos. And there’s a bunch of people who want chaos.”

Some of these tech companies are trying to crack down on false or microtargeted ads. Some are only allowing access to broad data about user demographics. Others, like Twitter, have banned political advertising completely. Still, others do nothing. Facebook continues to allow political ads and, despite its role in helping the Russians spread misinformation during the 2016 election, does not screen ads for false content.

The Federal Election Commission hasn’t done anything to regulate online ads because, as the AP pointed out, it’s short on commissioners. The body that could regulate and penalize tech companies or bad-faith advertisers doesn’t have enough members to make up a quorum for a meeting. The six-seat commission only has three members, because the White House and the U.S. Senate haven’t been able to agree on any candidates to fill the empty seats.

For now, voters are on their own. Tech companies are only held responsible by their own conscience regarding ads that are cheap to purchase and capable of massive damage. And that conscience doesn’t count for a lot.

Social media users need to be wary of political messages online. Some messages might not even disclose they are advertisements. It’s important to know the difference, do your own research and form your own opinions. No one is rallying to help the voters, so the voters must help themselves.

Funerals for Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Antill, Norman - 6 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Arbaugh, Jennings - Noon, Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Doss, Mark - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Gillispie, Glen - 11 a.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hoover, Evelyn - 1. p.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Linton, Anna - 1 p.m., Pennington Smith Funeral Home, Gauley Bridge.

Mace, T. Opal - 2 p.m., Starcher Cemetery, Arnoldsburg.

Nelson, Kenneth - Noon, Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.