Ethics Assignment: Political Advertising On Facebook
Ethics Assignment Task: Applying Ethical Theories
Follow the instructions given below to complete the task.
Write a report on the topic “Ethics of “Giving People a Voice” and Political Advertising on Facebook” and select the media article or case study related to the topic.
- Undertake further research about your chosen case and the ethical issue involved, to assist you in analysing and discussing it in your report.
- Analyse the ethical issue applying the classical ethical theories, including utilitarianism, deontology, contract, and virtue. Your report should present well-reasoned arguments, logically leading to appropriate recommendations.
- You should not introduce new arguments in your report that were not contained in your argument visualisation, and your report should contain all of the arguments contained in your visualisation.
- Write an overall conclusion that justifies your recommendations made in your report.
- Include a Reference list at the end of your work, using the correct APA referencing style, corresponding to in-text citations. The word limit for the report is 1500 words +/-10%. Headings, citations, references and appendices do not count towards the word limit, but quotations do.
As per the research, it is evident herein ethics assignment that humans are social animals and social media platforms have become an enabler to this basic trait. It is a channel for candid conversations, comic stories, opinionated pieces and even political discussions. It is also a leading way of how people consume news and get information on products, brands, status on worldwide activities etc. Brands have been using platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter for marketing and advertising. Further, for democracies as well, social media platforms are a boon because expression of opinion is desirable for its efficient functioning.
The power of social media platforms lies in its reach among users and their reliance on the platform for information update. According to Statista (Global social networks ranked by number of users, 2020), Facebook has about 2.5 billion users, WhatsApp has 2 billion and Twitter has 386 million users. Daily social media usage is about 144 minutes per day (Daily social media usage worldwide, 2019). This level of reach and depth has also prompted political parties, candidates and those working on their behalves to utilize the platform.
Discussion on moral and ethical issues with political advertising
Political advertisements should not be allowed on social media platforms - there are two key ethical concerns related to Internet (Information and Communication technology) explained below –
- Regulation on the internet
1. User privacy breach for political agenda
Strong propaganda on social media has been evident during the 2016 U.S Presidential elections (NY Times, 2018), a digital advertising firm ‘Cambridge Analytica’ used Facebook data to create voter profiles. This data was used for POTUS Trump’s election campaign. Also, Clinton’s supporters were discouraged from turning up for the polling. In 2010, Facebook conducted a randomized control trial of U.S users during the congressional elections, where mobilization messages were delivered. Also, the 2016 Brexit Referendum was affected by a wave of fake news (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017). These examples show how powerful the platform can be for behaviour change, further, user data breach is an attack on privacy. User details available with social media platform include demographics e.g. name, gender, race, location etc., and finer details like political inclination, issues of interest etc. based on their online activity.
From the perspective of Facebook or any other social media platform, information dissemination to their huge user base is for the greater good. It is believed that voters are rational human beings capable of evaluating multiple sources of information. It is essential for sound decision making with respect to their political choices. Any voter base can be divided into two categories – informed and uninformed. The informed groups are expected to form a pressure group, through which the uniformed group receives information. Candidate quality can be assessed better by this group in this case (Wittman, 2007). A symmetric voter distribution is influenced positively by the pressure group i.e. leads to the welfare of the entire group because of new information.Thus, there is no harm in usage of the platform – political party, candidate or otherwise, for political agendas.
Deontology says that people have the ability to distinguish right from wrong, they are expected to follow rules. Thus, political advertising and privacy should not be linked. Social media platforms are expected to anonymize shared data so that user identity is hidden. Political parties and candidates are expected to be morally and ethically sound and not spread incorrect information. However, there have beenprivacy concerns and data breaches by social media platforms,and deontology doesn’t hold its place in this scenario.Ad targeting based on voter profile, and lookout for similar data has been an ongoing activity. On successful execution, segmented targeting has led to change in voting behaviour (The Verge, 2016). Thus, by consequentialism, political advertisements shouldn’t be allowed on these platforms.
Breach of user privacy discussed here is not legally backed, as social media platforms have user’s agreement on data usage. There are loopholes with this agreement which is exploited. The advantage that individuals have with these platforms is that they have the option to opt out of the entire political conversation.
2. Lack of regulation in political ads
Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. provide several means to advertise. The posts, stories, tweets etc. can be promoted i.e. paid for, by the party or candidate and may relate to a public topic of interest. Content can be distributed by supporters as opinions, as news items, and for discussion in forums etc. This means, there are several avenues for users/voters to come in contact with information, this has essentially led to an information disorder in case of political content and agenda (Pennington, Winfrey, Warner and Kearney, 2015)
- Disinformation: Social media optimizations on the internet have led to creation of odd methods to attract people. With the motive of traffic generation, click-baits are deployed, hashtags are hijacked etc. This increases the likelihood of disinformation to appear in user’s social media feeds. Political disinformation is more than political information on the internet (Tucker et al., 2018)
- Misinformation: Facebook has recently started fact check on content or news items that are trending. This system exists, but is very limited in scope. There is a lot of unverified content which is mostly fake. With eye-catching headings and indulging in what is called ‘yellow journalism’, sites attract users to fake news (Pennington, Winfrey, Warner and Kearney, 2015)
- Propaganda: It is well established from observations that political games are won on emotional and ideological appeals. Social media provides the best way for parties and candidates to do this
The complex ecosystem of social media platforms makes it impossible for any authority to regulate or determine the truthfulness of the content. There are three moral and ethical concpets applicable in this context –
Contract and groupthink
There is no doubt that social media platforms provide a voice to people(University, 2020), they enable all users to express their opinion. By social contract theory, for smooth functioning of the society, maximizing such platforms is desirable. However, there are two key concerns when it comes to voicing on a public platform which can be accessed by a multitude. First, while it can be argued that network heterogeneity has improved political participation (Kim, 2018), it also leads to the issue of groupthink. Influenced by the group views, individuals find it hard to make independent decisions. This translates to mobilization in politics. Second, often the opinion on a forum is directed towards certain set or type of people, this can lead to abuse and violence towards them. This negates the argument that social media provides voice to people, as the counter is also true
An individual who is aware of the information source, has persuasion knowledge (Boerman and Kruikemeier, 2016). He/she is expected to evaluate the political advertisement with the understanding that this information is paid for, which reveals that there is an ulterior motive. In such cases, it has been observed that people are sceptical of the party or candidate. There is lack of trust and change in voter attitude (Barfar, 2019). The conclusion is not biased towards a few political parties but applies to all, however, may depend on the political events of the time. Nevertheless, this also contributes to the argument why political parties on ground of loss aversion should avoid advertisements on social media platforms.
Virtue ethics says that by practicing honesty, justice and so on, one can become honourable and moral by character. This would be ideal way to go not just for the social media platforms but also for the political parties. If this were true, regulation wouldn’t be required on the internet. However, it is moral myopia of Facebook and Google, these companies asked for exemption of the standard disclaimers that appear with political ads during the 2016 elections in the USA. The motivation was clearly to seek profit.These organizations also denied to reduce the ad sizes and change their placement. One can argue that voters can see through the motive behind these ads, with or without disclaimers. Due to banner blindness people tend to look only at the primary content and ignore disclaimers. However, as there is no way to differentiate between an advertisement and an opinion piece, this is misleading. During this election, the Federal Election Commission was not able to regulate political advertisements. It could have interfered in public interest to stop or regulate digital ads that were running without disclaimers, however, it also lacked technology expertise in the matter (Haenschen and Wolf, 2019)
In the discussion so far, there have been a few arguments where political advertisements on social media don’t appear to be harmful on moral and ethical grounds. However, there are stronger ethical claims otherwise. Social media platforms should not allow political advertisements on two ethical grounds – user privacy at risk and lack of regulation in digital ads.
Utilitarianism calls for information dissemination to reach a larger crowd and encourages political advertisements. By contract theory also, availability of the platforms is important for better functioning of the society. Though, from the perspective of social media platforms, there is lack of virtue as the platforms have exhibited a profit seeking attitude. Political parties or candidates should be wary of likelihood of negative response from the people and be loss-averse. We have established that deontology doesn’t hold true in this scenario as none of the entities seem to be working purely on what is right and wrong. The right approach here is consequentialism theory.Past results indicate a misuse of power of social media in political advertising. Thus, social media platforms should not allow political ads.
Allcott, H., &Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal Of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-236. https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.31.2.211
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