The Nightlight Project

The Nightlight Project seeks to shine light on dark ads used to spread political disinformation online. Dark ads, advertisements not explicitly labeled or reported as such, are a tool online advertisers use to spread disinformation and sway public opinion. Because dark ads aren’t labeled and don’t have clear attribution, it is nearly impossible to hold the bad actors behind them accountable.

This project investigated the regulatory powers of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the U.S. Congress to protect our democracy and provide basic rules of the road for online political advertising. Many of our suggestions can be acted upon now, without Congressional action, to help stem the flood of political disinformation online.

We also created a suite of educational resources for the general public to learn about dark ads. We created a mock social media feed and filled it with dark ads to illustrate some of these ads in practice.

Check out our work on the solutions page!

Four Types of Dark Ads

Dark Advertisement (n): a piece of paid advertising content not labeled or reported explicitly as paid for.

Misleading Re-shares

Misleading re-shares are shares of paid ads (originally correctly labeled as ads) that you see as organic content, without any “paid ad” label. Many online sites will drop the "paid ad" label once an ad is shared. For example, the San Francisco Giants could pay to put an advertisement for discount tickets on your friend’s feed. If your friend shares this post and tags you in it, it may not be clear to you that this was originally paid content for your friend to see, and thus, a dark ad to you.

Microtargeting

Microtargeting allows advertisers to pinpoint exactly who they want to show their ads to, and then show their ads to only those people. For example, a political candidate might run attack ads in demographics known to be critical to their opponent. How is this a form of dark advertising? Advertisers can run many different versions of the same ad to different demographics and hide them from others, allowing them to “play all sides” on any issue. The Republican National Committee publicly stated that they routinely ran 40,000 to 50,000 variants of ads ahead of the 2016 presidential debates.

Influencers

Influencers are people with an online audience who have been paid by companies to advertise their products. Influencer endorsements become dark ads when the influencers do not explicitly disclose to their audience that they were paid to promote products or ideas. As an example, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign paid over 500 “deputy digital organizers” $2,500 per month to generate political content for the Bloomberg campaign, and much of that content bypassed disclaimer and disclosure rules.

Misleading Authorship

Misleading authorship occurs when the author of an article writes about a topic that they have a financial interest in without disclosing these interests in the piece. For example, if an oil executive writes a criticism of a politician’s environmental policy that would adversely impact their business, the author’s background should be disclosed to readers. Otherwise, the company and thus the author could profit from a piece that lobbies for legislative change in their favor without the readers’ understanding.

What Do The People Say?

  • 72% of Americans say that internet companies shouldn’t share their information with political campaigns “in order to target certain voters with online advertisements.” This belief is shared across political ideologies, too! The opinion is shared by Republicans (75%), Democrats (69%), and Independents (72%).
  • 59% of Americans believe websites should be required to disclose who paid for political campaign ads, how much they cost, and who the ads are aimed at.
  • Only 7% of Americans believe that internet companies should be able to use any information—especially personal interests, frequently visited websites, and search topics—to target political ads. However, this is exactly what they’re currently allowed to do!

Allow the ad to run %

Allow the ad to run but warn users it may contain false information %

Refuse to run the ad %

An ad targeting supporters of an opposing candidate or cause that provides them the wrong election date

5

15

81

An ad which says a politician voted for a policy he or she did not vote for

10

28

62

An ad that misrepresents a candidate's position on an issue by providing some accurate facts or details but leaving out others

15

40

45

© 2020 The Nightlight Project. This project was created and incubated at the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub