Preventing Harry Tuttle

My last post, Democracy’s Soft Underbelly warned how algorithms for content distribution and advertising have been weaponized to alter public opinion.

The most disturbing aspect of the affair is there is no public evidence of the ad campaigns so there is literally nothing to talk about. When there is no public record of what ad creatives were used, there can be no debate over the of the veracity of the claims made or appropriateness of the imagery used. This recently changed as Facebook has now turned over evidence (most likely because of a warrant) to Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is looking into Russian hacking of the election.

Mueller’s investigation has received copies of the Russian-bought ads and details about the specific account information and targeting criteria the buyers used to distribute their ads, according to the (Wall Street) Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. TechCrunch

“Democracy dies in darkness” is the new Washington Post tagline. The only way to have an open civic debate about the new threat to public discourse posed by advertising on social media platforms is to review the evidence. There needs to be transparency about how advertisers are paying their way into the hearts and minds of their target audiences. With transparency comes accountability.

If you’re going to target me, I deserve to know.  All ads and ad copy must be stored, shared, and freely available to anybody in a searchable database. So if I want to see ads targeted at African-Americans in a swing state, I can just type “African-Americans aged 35-60 with a college degrees” and show me all the ads that were done. – Jason Calcanis, This Week in Startups

This database of ads, freely available to the public, would expose any questionable or unethical activity by advertisers and hopefully prevent heavy-handed regulation of this industry which has been such an important driver of economic growth.

A democratic society evolves through transparency and public debate. Advertisers that operate in the open will be forced to self-regulate themselves in full view of public opinion. Without public exposure, advertising standards and interpretation of these standards will remain behind closed doors.  In such a world, reform will come through an opaque and inevitably bureaucratic regulations that will stifle innovation.

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film  Brazil cast a satirical eye on a world  where bureaucracy and regulation have run amok. Nothing can be done without the appropriate paperwork. Harry Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro) is the terrorist heating engineer is our hero of common sense.

Have you got a 27B/6?

* It’s been pointed out that the title of this post is misleading. We do not want to “prevent” Harry Tuttle, he’s the hero and one of my favorite characters. We want to avoid being “Brazilled” – Thanks Stephen Davidson!