Transparency of political ads plays significant role in voter behaviors

Takvim newspaper published a news article which claimed that then-İstanbul mayoral candidate, current Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu placed an ad on several websites and asked for votes as if he would implement the projects of metro and tram lines which had already been completed by İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality and even the test drives of which had been performed by that time. Besides, the television channels such as A Haber and another newspaper Sabah raised this topic by showing İmamoğlu’s ad which mentions previously built Mecidiyeköy-Mahmutbey Metro Line.

A short video about the claim and the visual of the ad were shared as well.

During our research on the claim, we did not find another visual apart from the visual shared on the news items by media institutions such as A Haber, Sabah and Takvim. We followed different ways to find the ad. At the end, we called for help from Google AdSense, but they stated that they could not detect such content.

What would happen if Google would have introduced its transparency reports regarding political ads -which have been applied in several countries- also in Turkey? The fact that Google’s transparency reports are not covering Turkey makes it difficult to find out who conducted the propaganda activities during the electoral periods in Turkey. In addition to that, it is not likely to reveal what kind of propaganda activities were conducted through Google AdSense and how much money was spent on them. Briefly, under such circumstances, the parties who prepared such sponsored content to influence voting behavior of the public cannot be found out. Moreover, this content may contain false information as well. However, Google exercises several methods to prevent this problem in the U.S. and the European Union. Let’s take a glance at them with examples.

The ads which included fake news and published on Facebook and Google marked the 2016 US Presidential Elections. During this electoral period, a small Macedonian group earned money by raising the access to fake internet sites with fake news which they spread by means of Google AdSense. Washington Post reported that the owner of a fake news site, Paul Horner was earning $10,000 per month.

All of these disputes caused particularly big technology companies to take precautions, considering that several solutions should be found against the methods which are used to influence the voter behaviors. Google, Facebook and Twitter declared successively that they took steps about this issue. Google and Facebook stated that they would ban the websites which generated fake news before the US Presidential Elections in 2016, from giving ads.

It can be suggested that the customized online ads influence voter decisions more strongly. The ads which are customized according to various features such as gender, age and income group differ from the traditional ads as well. A news platform focused on producing investigative journalism, ProPublica indicated that such political ads on Facebook are identified scarcely, so the platform asked for help from users to see and analyze the ads which targeted them prior to the midterm elections in 2018. ProPublica aimed to collect data about the ads on Facebook with a plugin developed by the platform. According to another research, Facebook users see on average 12 political ads per day. Approximately $400 million was spent for political advertising during the US electoral period in 2016.  

It was consistently underlined that both researchers and technology companies should take more solution-oriented steps against the political ads which aim to mislead voters.

Google presents a transparency report on political ads

Ads of Google may welcome you anywhere other than the search engine. They are published in all platforms which use YouTube and AdSense/AdWords. In other words, you can see political ads not only on Google search engine, but also on YouTube before you listen to a song of your favorite singer. As political ads find more space on internet, they influence voters and, accordingly the democracy more easily. Google took a more realistic step to overcome this problem in the United States.

Google announced on August 15, 2018 that they would broaden the content of Transparency Reports and offer a more transparent procedure for placing political ads. The purpose was to reveal the exact budget and identity of the political advertisers, and make them accessible for voters.

As part of this step, identification of the payer is required to place ad on Google. Furthermore, several additional terms were determined to verify the advertisers. The terms are as follows;

Google stipulates additional verification for the political advertisers in the US before purchasing ad. In this respect, the advertisers need to show that they are appropriate for publishing political ads. Besides, they need to complete a process to confirm that they are either US citizens or permanent residents, and submit their identity cards in this process.”

The political ads, their advertisers, the candidates for whom these ads were placed and the cost and publishing date of the ads can be seen on the Google’s website. Moreover, you can find the ads sorted in chronological order in this panel which has an advanced filtering feature.

This system indicates the expenditures incurred for ads in the US by position as well. Thus, it provides the voters the opportunity to know the money spent in a more transparent way.

“By location

The data given below indicates the expenditures made in the US for the political ads within Google Ads Services. Choose the relevant state to see how much money the advertisers spend in the region of congress.”

The US States and the political advertising expenditures by states

In addition to the expenditures by location, detailed information about the advertisers can be obtained. The advertisers who spent the most for political ads are sorted.

“By the advertiser who spent the most in the country

The following data shows the advertisers that spent more than $500 for political ads from May 31, 2018 as part of the US midterm elections. The list was sorted in descending order.”

To illustrate the detailed information, it is seen that “Trump Make America Great Again Committee” spent more than $4 million to receive Google Ads services and about 11,000 ads were published.

“Summary of advertiser

This part contains information about the political ads placed by this advertiser since May 31, 2018. The following data is updated weekly.”

You can see each ad placed by this group and learn the budget allocated for it.

“Advertising campaigns

In general, an advertising campaign is a group of ads which have common targeting preferences, start and end dates and other settings. Below, you can display the advertising campaigns of the advertisers, review the ads of each campaign and see the demographic groups targeted by these campaigns.

Get more information about the targeting of advertising campaigns”

You can see the supporters of the parties or leaders in the section since it provides detailed information about political ads. In particular, disclosure of the money spent during the electoral process and of the parties who made these expenditures is a significant step with respect to transparency. Besides, such transparency may prevent the spread of false information through political ads.

Transparency method will be implemented for the EU Parliamentary Elections as well

Google announced that it will take measures against false information for the EU Parliamentary Elections in which 350 million people will go to polls and 705 members will be elected. In this regard, the company decided to introduce several methods which will help users to get more information on political ads. The voters in the European Union will be able to see the advertisers of Google ads and the budget spent for these ads.

Meanwhile, Google works for the Indian General Elections which is scheduled to be held from April 11 to May 19, 2019. It stated that it will take various measures for the elections in which over 850 million Indians will vote. Transparency report regarding political ads will be one of these measures.

Facebook opened a library to display active ads

The Ad Library opened by Facebook provides advertising transparency by offering a comprehensive and searchable collection of all ads which are currently published on all Facebook Products. Details about the active ads can be found in the library as well. These details contain demographic data of the target audience.

For instance, you can see the active ads in Ad Library when you search for the Facebook account of Ekrem İmamoğlu. As of March 29, 2019, there were 184 active ads placed by İmamoğlu. On the other hand, 10 active ads were found when Facebook account of Binali Yıldırım Communication Office was searched.

The page which displays ad content of Ekrem İmamoğlu

Ad content of Binali Yıldırım

This feature introduced by Facebook in Turkey is a substantial step, even though it is not the same with the process in the US. The voters in the US can learn expenditures of the advertisers on Facebook as well. Facebook plans to launch the Ad Library across the world.

The transparency criteria of the platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are different. Several academics from New York University stated in an article that these platforms have some deficiencies and limitations despite their efforts for transparency.

How were the political ads published for the local elections in Turkey?

The ads shown on YouTube during the electoral period consist of political ads which aim to influence voting behaviors. While some of them are about the promises of parties, most of them were prepared to create negative impression about the candidates of other parties.

Some of the ads broadcast on YouTube are given below:

The ads placed by YouTube account of Büyük Türkiye (Great Turkey) contain negative content about the candidates of CHP.

Similarly, YouTube account of Ankaralı Vatanseverler (Patriots from Ankara) broadcasts the ads of counter propaganda.

Considering that a lot fewer steps were taken in Turkey compared to the US, more actions need to be taken to provide transparency and to point out the false information problem in a country which has voted 14 times in 17 years.

Translation: Sonay Ün

Translation: Sonay Ün