What is a Digital Political Ad?
The answer may not be as simple as you think. State definitions—as well as online platforms’ definitions—for political advertising vary, and not all states explicitly mention digital or online advertising. Some examples:
Arizona: Political advertising is “information or materials, other than nonpaid social media messages, that are mailed, e-mailed, posted, distributed, published, displayed, delivered, broadcasted or placed in a communication medium and that are for the purpose of influencing an election” (A.R.S. § 16-901).
New Hampshire: Political advertising is “any communication, including buttons or printed material attached to motor vehicles, which expressly or implicitly advocates the success or defeat of any party, measure or person at any election” (RSA 664:2).
Washington: Political advertising “includes any advertising displays, newspaper ads, billboards, signs, brochures, articles, tabloids, flyers, letters, radio or television presentations, digital communication, or other means of mass communication, used for the purpose of appealing, directly or indirectly, for votes or for financial or other support or opposition in any election campaign” (RCW 42.17A.005).
An online platform’s definition can also intersect with a state’s definition, potentially causing confusion about what content is allowed or what meets campaign finance disclosure requirements. Google, for example, defines political ads as those purchased by or about current elected officials or candidates for state or federal office or for ballot measures. Facebook’s definition is similar, but includes ads about “social issues.” And Twitter, which banned political ads in 2019, defines them as relating to “a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome,” though cause-based ads are allowed. (Many of these platforms also have rules about mis/disinformation, an issue closely related to digital political ads, but not addressed here.)
Legislators may want to examine their state’s definition of digital political advertising to ensure it meets their state’s needs in the current technological landscape.
Approaches to Digital Political Ads
By virtue of NCSL’s mission, this page focuses on legislative options for managing or regulating digital political ads. Many observers may not see a legislative imperative. Those on the right may advocate for little legislative involvement in online political advertising, arguing that regulation curbs free speech and limits access to the low-cost and democratic space of online advertising.
Lawmakers may also argue that industry players, rather than legislators, are in a better position to manage digital political ads because they understand the complexity of online advertising. The Digital Advertising Alliance’s Political Ads program offers a self-regulatory approach to increase transparency and accountability in digital political advertising. Such programs could work in tandem with legislative regulation.