Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Political Ads or Modern-Day Propaganda?

-- By JayTongkak – 13 Mar 2020

Social medias have been used by various sectors to reach out to people from literally anywhere in the world. Apart from the obvious commercial value, These platforms a tremendous value for political advertising as well, especially thanks to a feature called 'Micro-targeting'. A feature that many people have now become aware of thanks to very specific advertisements appearing on online platforms. Recently, micro-targeting feature has also been used for political benefits. The budget for political ads has been growing fast and it is expected to reach $10 billion in 2020. However, I am now wondering whether it is really beneficial for the people to let the only political ads run free and wild on these platforms. Just like how hard it is to differentiate between traditional news medias and online social medias, there could be an overlap between propaganda and political advertisements. It would therefore be interesting to look back at the history of propaganda / political advertisements and their effects.

History of Propaganda / Political Ads

Propaganda campaigns seem to be rooted far back in human history, for political and religious purposes. However, the term “propaganda” itself became common in the US around 1914, when WWI began. posters and films were leveraged against enemies to rally troop enlistment and garner the public opinion. The Nazis also effectively used propaganda to paint the Jews as subhuman and dangerous. Propaganda seems to be the go-to tools for leaders to manipulate the public opinion for or against something to gain favor in war effort. Newspaper and television played a big part in such method.

Current Issues of Micro-Targeting

Tracing back to the present days where there are no actual physical war going on, propaganda transforms itself to advertising. Companies may use advertising to propagate their products to the consumers, while the government may disseminate their views or policy to influence the public. Though in modern days, communication of information is not as one-sided as it was before. People get access to various sides of the same story and may take their own view in each topic. However, with the introduction of micro-targeting, we could be looking back to the ‘propaganda’ era once again. Under the political environment, politicians may advertise targeting very tightly defined group of voters. Such voters would receive rather one-sided political ads as a result. Under the democracy regime, people should be able to receive information from all parties and decide to vote upon such information. The right to receive information is also protected under the First Amendment. In the light of this, some online platforms decided to minimize or abolish micro-targeting entirely, while Facebook recently refused to do so. ]] The reasons why such modern propaganda or micro-targeting political ads could be problematic are that some platforms such as Facebook may allow fake political ads. This manipulative method would seriously harm the democracy in the country. This also reminds me of an advertisement on a subway saying something along the line of ‘big techs are watching us, who is watching big tech.’ This question is tricky but true in many aspects. The big techs are entitled to many decisions affecting our online life, whether it be privacy, advertising, etc.

I would like to share a perspective from my own experience in my country where propaganda is really effective. In Thailand, the royal monarchy has been ruling for centuries. The idea of propaganda was recently introduced decades ago when the US was fighting against communism. To prevent Thailand from going communist, Thailand refurbished the idea of the King being sacred and kind. Advertisements for the King came in various shape and form e.g., their own mandatory TV shows, royal flags, free calendars with the King pictures, King’s anthem prior to every film screening, public holidays related to the royal families, etc. Nowadays, most government websites contain banners or pages dedicated to promoting and showing support to the royal family. If you go to Thailand, it would be hard to not see a picture of the King because they exist everywhere around you. As a result of such numerous and outstanding propagandas, many people buy into the idea that the King is not to be touched and they truly love their King, anyone opposing the King or promoting democracy would be considered a bad person.


As I pointed out, the result of a really one-sided propaganda or political ads could be very effective and extreme as seen in Thailand. I would not like to see that happening in the US or anywhere else in the world. The idea of micro-targeting should therefore not stand in the democracy regime. People should receive information from all sides to make a well-rounded decision themselves. Though, it is always complicated when it comes to content regulation online. Allowing any information online could cause fake ads issue, implementing strict takedowns or censoring could give a chilling effect to online freedom of speech. I have yet to see any country have come up with a perfect solution to this to date.

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r1 - 15 Mar 2020 - 06:17:42 - JayTongkak
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