A principled approach to social media advertising

As a membership and campaigning organisation, ORG uses online advertising as a vital part of our public outreach and engagement. We stopped advertising on social media platforms in response to the 2018 Cambridge Analytica revelations; this decision also underlined a longer-standing organisational uneasiness over the tensions between our policy mandate and our communications reliance on data-driven corporations. 

Having taken time to reflect on the ethical complexities involved, we have now decided to re-engage with social media advertising on a conditional basis. We believe that using online platforms to reach people who are or might be interested in hearing from us will make us more effective and impactful - and that is vital if we are to continue challenging the abusive practices of big corporate entities and powerful government agencies.

We enjoy working collaboratively and want to create and share rich, engaging advertising content that inspires people to connect with our work and join our campaign actions. It’s important to us that our online advertising honours our organisational values and protects people’s fundamental rights. The following principles have been designed to help us navigate the ethical complexities around advertising on online social media platforms.

We hope that these principles will also help to guide other organisations and entities in their own online ad choices. They are intended to open a discussion and we welcome feedback from anyone interested in helping us improve.

Principled statement 1: We will use online advertising to fight, not prop up, broken online systems and structures.

Online advertising in its current form fuels an unacceptably exploitative data economy which routinely surveils every person online, and profiles, segments and targets us at unsettlingly invasive levels for the sole purpose of maximising commercial profit. 

This system further incentivises extended user engagement (increasing corporate revenue) by feeding us a diet of negative, extreme, attention-grabbing content, which recklessly stokes discontent and enmity to the detriment of real-world society.

We will use all the tools at our disposal to challenge this status quo and partner with allied individuals and groups to build a fairer, better online system. However, to do this, we need to stir up a supportive movement for change - and to do that, we need to advertise. 

What this looks like in practice:

  • We will not advertise on any website or platform that operates real-time bidding under the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) or Google Authorized Buyers specifications.

  • We will use our best endeavours not to add personal information to Facebook or any other big tech platform. We know this is very difficult to achieve, but one red line we can draw is that we will never upload our email lists.

  • We will not advertise with online media outlets that fuel hatred on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, migration status, sexuality, gender or gender identity, disability or any other protected characteristics. 

  • We will use our influence to press the online platforms we advertise with to implement effective processes for swiftly identifying and removing hate speech.

Principled statement 2: We will strive to model ethical decision-making in our online advertising choices.

Social media is problematic, but it also holds the greatest network effects. Choosing to advertise with Facebook, Google and other big platforms is a trade-off between our goals and our values; ultimately, we believe that these platforms’ potential to enhance our impact justifies their use. Nonetheless, we can and will self-limit our approach to audience narrowing within the confines of these platforms to define and shape what we consider to be acceptable.

What this looks like in practice:

  • We will only use personal targeting where unavoidable and when deemed necessary for campaign effectiveness.

  • At the most, we will only target based on user-uploaded profile information (age, location, gender) and public page likes.

  • We will never target using GDPR Article 9 special category data.

  • We will make every effort not to use inferences to target.

  • We will not use dark advertising methods, such as showing different adverts to segmented audiences (NB. This does not preclude A/B message testing, we will be transparent about what messages we test and how, and ultimately we will show all audiences the ‘winning’ message).

  • We will not create or use lookalike audiences.

Principled statement 3: We will use advertising as a tool to challenge big tech’s dominance and encourage competition within the social media landscape.

Advertising should always be a means to an end, and for that it’s not all about Facebook. Each social media platform has different categories and quantities of users, different architectures and different social effects. Because of this, some campaigns may be more or less effective on certain platforms. 

Engaging with a plurality of mediums for advertising purposes promotes healthy diversity in the marketplace. It also prevents our reach and effect from being wholly dependent on whim-based corporate decisions about which voices should be amplified or muffled by platform content dissemination algorithms.

What this looks like in practice:

  • We will only advertise on online platforms (a) in tandem with other forms of advertising and (b) with the aim of driving traffic to our website/s or other owned content. 

  • We will make case-by-case decisions about which platforms to use for advertising campaigns, considering factors such as user demographics, architecture and social effects.

  • We will prioritise advertising on smaller social media platforms where this increases the likelihood of engaging a particular audience without targeting their personal information.

Principled statement 4: We will only use social media advertising so far as evidence supports the conclusion that it increases our impact.

We are accountable to our donors and funders - which include thousands of individual givers across the UK - and take seriously the trust they place in us to use our financial resources responsibly. Social media advertising is only worthwhile if it genuinely increases our exposure and incentivises new members.

What this looks like in practice:

  • We will regularly review our ad analytics to assess ad effectiveness and shift our spends accordingly.

  • We will monitor return on investment through biannual reviews of our social media spend correlated against membership numbers, likes, and community sizes on platforms, and adjust our advertising accordingly.

Principled statement 5: We will run radically transparent advertising campaigns.

Online advertising will never change if organisations such as ours do not take a radically different approach to how campaigns should be run. Engaging with the current system makes it imperative that we do our best to mitigate its flaws.

What this looks like in practice:

  • We will host a detailed ad transparency database publicly sharing information for every ad campaign. This will detail, at a minimum, campaign ad spend, adverts run, messages tested, platforms used and targeting criteria.

  • For each ad campaign, we will publish and explain measurement statistics from our ad analytics monitoring.

  • We will publish and adhere to accessible data use policies.

  • We will publish these principles, review their effectiveness at regular intervals and refine accordingly, and further develop them as policy positions evolve in consultation with our members and other campaign groups sharing aligned aims and values.

    Last updated: 13 November 2019