Yes, there’s an ethical way to use digital advertising in politics

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For the past two years, I’ve taught a lively business ethics course at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Spending hours in a room with hundreds of curious business minds has led to impassioned conversations around topics that have ranged from Uber’s classification of employees vs. independent contractors to Wells Fargo’s fraudulent checking accounts.

Yet, as I sat down to grade this semester’s crop of final papers, one topic dominated all else—and that was the role of digital platforms in the 2016 Presidential Election.

Digital and online social platforms are taking heat for allowing misleading ad campaigns to reach voters. Beyond the political bubble, broader societal concerns are being raised over the ways in which the automated, algorithmic content models that fuel these properties have turned manipulative at best and, at worst, sinister.

As I pored through page after page of analysis in my students’ papers, I began to wonder if digital advertising methods that utilize this kind of targeting and automation be used ethically by political campaigns.

The question was especially poignant to me, as I am currently embarking on a political campaign of my own. After years cutting my teeth in roles working for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the White House, and launching the advocacy startup Creative Caucus, I decided it was time to get off the sidelines.
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