A cloak of mystery often shrouds the inner workings of technological giants, but sometimes clarity is in plain sight. A Virginia Tech research team recently uncovered conclusive details about the roles Facebook, Google, and the Federal Election Commission played in digital advertising around the U.S. presidential election of 2016.

Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Jordan Wolf, a 2018 graduate of Virginia Tech’s master’s program in communication, collaborated on the first academic research study to look specifically at how Facebook and Google deadlocked the Federal Election Commission’s efforts to regulate digital political advertising.

Haenschen and Wolf wanted to know what motivated Facebook and Google to seek disclaimer exemptions from the Federal Election Commission and why the independent regulatory agency failed to regulate digital advertisements leading up to the 2016 election. Their study — recently published by Telecommunications Policy, the International Journal of Digital Economy, Data Sciences and New Media — explored how the two platforms avoided disclosing who paid for advertisements related to the election. 

"Our research findings show that Facebook strategically deadlocked the Federal Election Commission on the issue of disclaimers for political ads on the platform by refusing to ask for an alternative means of satisfying the disclaimer requirement. By engineering a 3-3 split along partisan lines, they ensured that their ads would remain unregulated. As a result, foreign entities were able to use Facebook's ad platform to interfere in the 2016 election,” said Haenschen.

Research Highlights Include:
-Facebook and Google requested exemptions from standard disclaimer requirements for political ads.
-Platforms were motivated by profit to seek exemptions, refusing to change their ad sizes instead.
-The FEC deadlocked along partisan lines, unable to grant or deny the exemption.
-As a result, digital ads used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election lacked disclaimers.

Read the full press release here: https://bit.ly/2IE9Ntd

To secure an interview with Haenschen, please contact Shannon Andrea in the media relations office at sandrea@vt.edu or 703-399-9494. 

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