The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Lindsay Gorman and Bret Schafer teamed up with civic tech entrepreneur Clara Tsao and Harvard’s Dipayan Ghosh to explore national security vulnerabilities in the online information ecosystem in a series of papers. Today we released the first paper in the series, which focuses on how authoritarians exploit vulnerabilities in the advertising ecosystem.

The online ad ecosystem is a valuable tool in authoritarian actors and violent extremists’ efforts to spread disinformation and promote violence, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and state-backed propaganda. As the authors write, “The same aspects that make online marketing a valuable industry for companies make it a useful tool for a range of bad actors. The ability to microtarget specific demographic and social groups allows marketers to segment and splice key audiences, but it also enables malign actors to target suppressive or divisive ads at those they deem susceptible….”

While some platforms have taken steps to attempt to address these problems, their efforts have been insufficient. “Self-regulation has allowed companies to implement policies that are self-serving, contradictory, or unenforceable; and even well-intentioned measures have proved insufficient without robust deterrents,” the authors write. “Moreover, authoritarian and extremist actors have rapidly adapted to changes on online platforms to circumvent these new policies, many of which have proved easy to manipulate.”

To overcome the shortcomings of self-regulation, the authors make six policy proposals for Congress, including:

  1. Require greater transparency from AdTech companies by:
    1. Mandating that companies involved in the placement of programmatic ads (ads that are bought and sold through automated processes) provide advertisers with detailed disclosure reports identifying publishers (Site IDs) served by their ad buys; and
    2. Legislating an aggregated and anonymized public disclosure requirement of ad spends by AdTech firms, similar to the SEC’s quarterly reporting framework.
  2. Appropriate funds for more rigorous investigations into and prosecution of digital ad fraud
  3. Create legal recourse for advertisers whose programmatic ads appear on sites that they have previously blacklisted
  4. Require transparency from digital platforms: to publicly disclose the entities or individuals that pay for all digital targeted advertisements, to embed disclosures into digital ads themselves, and to perform due diligence to assess that the information provided by advertisers is accurate. This measure would expand upon existing proposals focused on political ads—most notably the Honest Ads Act introduced in the U.S. Senate—and apply to all digital advertisements placed on large platforms
  5. Restrict advertisers’ ability to target political ads beyond broad categories such as gender, age, and postal code
  6. Pass legislation prohibiting foreign individuals and governments from purchasing any election-related ads, similar to the bipartisan PAID AD Act

Please reach out to if you are interested in speaking to the authors. You can read the report here:

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.