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Unregulated online political ads pose a threat to democracy



theconversation.com – Steven Caplan, Adjunct Instructor of Communications and Marketing, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism – 2024-07-09 07:22:30

Social media companies are doing a poor job of telling you who is responsible for the political ads you see.

Anna Barclay/Getty Images

Steven Caplan, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Think back to the last time you scrolled through your social media feed and encountered a political ad that perfectly aligned with your views – or perhaps one that outraged you. Could you tell if it was from a legitimate campaign, a shadowy political action committee or even a foreign entity? Could you discern who paid for the ad? Chances are you couldn't.


While television and radio political ads have been subject to strict disclosure requirements for decades, their online counterparts exist in a regulatory vacuum. Social media giants like Facebook, X – formerly Twitter – and Instagram have become central battlegrounds for political campaigns. Yet they operate without the transparency mandated for traditional media. This allows advertisers to use sophisticated microtargeting to tailor messages to voters, often exploiting detailed personal data.

Welcome to the unregulated Wild West of online political advertising, where transparency is scarce and accountability is lacking. With the 2024 U.S. presidential election in full swing, this digital frontier poses an unprecedented threat to the integrity of American democracy.

The good old days

The McCain-Feingold Act became over two decades ago. The law, officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, was designed to curb the influence of money in and increase transparency in campaign financing. The landmark legislation, championed by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), includes the regulation of issue advocacy ads on television and radio.

The McCain-Feingold Act addressed the need for disclaimers and the “Stand by Your Ad” provision, which required candidates to personally endorse their messages in TV and radio ads. Such regulations have proved effective in maintaining a level of accountability and transparency in traditional media.


The media landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation since the bill's passage, however. As a communications scholar who studies online advertising, I see the lack of similar regulatory measures governing online political advertisements as a glaring absence. This vacuum leaves platforms responsible for providing transparency.

At the same time, Federal Election Commission rules governing disclosure on digital political ads remain murky at best. The lack of clarity makes tracking and analyzing digital political ads a daunting task for researchers, journalists and concerned citizens.

Ad transparency studies

A recent study conducted by open internet advocacy organization Mozilla and Finnish internet research firm Check First reveals significant deficiencies in the ad transparency tools provided by major tech platforms. Ad transparency tools are collections and analysis of ads that the social media companies make publicly available. Researchers, policymakers and advocacy groups use the tools to understand ads and their effects. The deficiencies raise concerns about the potential for manipulation and deception in the -up to the presidential election.

The study examined the ad transparency tools of 11 major tech platforms, X, Apple's App Store, Google, Meta, TikTok and LinkedIn. The study found that these tools often incomplete data, have broken search functions and are difficult to use effectively. Among the tech giants the study evaluated, X emerged as the worst performer, with a dismal record of providing meaningful data for watchdogs and users alike.


Notably, the study focused on the efforts of these platforms to comply with the European Union's Digital Services Act, which mandates a certain level of ad transparency. The United States, however, has no comparable requirements, leaving voters vulnerable to potential manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

A study of Meta's ad policy enforcement found that the company missed most of the political ads on Facebook that had failed to properly identify themselves as political.

Recent academic research offers some insights into the potential effectiveness of political ad labeling. One study tested various transparency information disclosures based on enacted regulations, including the EU's Digital Services Act, and proposed regulations, including the U.S. Honest Ads Act.

The Digital Services Act is a broad set of regulations that requires online platforms to provide real-time information about which posts are ads and who produced and financed them. The U.S. bill aims to require platforms to maintain publicly accessible of any political ads purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500 on ads in a calendar year. It also seeks to ensure that foreign entities are not purchasing political ads to influence U.S. elections.

The researchers found that transparency measures based on these regulations were most effective in increasing users' ability to recognize and understand persuasion attempts in advertising. However, the academic study also highlighted significant challenges in implementing ad labeling. Only 30% of participants remembered noticing the transparency information, underscoring the difficulty of making such measures effective in the fast-paced world of social media.


The stakes

The importance of ad transparency was spotlighted by a recent from AI Forensics, a European nonprofit that investigates influential and opaque algorithms. The report, titled “No Embargo in Sight: Meta Lets Pro-Russia Propaganda Ads Flood the EU,” revealed that a massive network of pro-Russian propaganda targeted voters in France and Germany. It reached 38 million user accounts in just six months. Meta failed to identify and label the vast majority of these ads as political in a timely manner, allowing the disinformation to spread rapidly.

Experts are increasingly concerned about the potential for similar disinformation campaigns to target American voters. With wars raging in multiple global hot spots and platforms like X and Facebook struggling to monitor and report on political ads effectively, the risks of electoral interference and voter manipulation are significant.

A man in a business suit stands at a podium while a woman in a business suit stands between the podium and a sign on an easel

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced the Honest Ads Act in 2017.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Despite the Honest Ads Act's high-profile bipartisan sponsors and the potential effectiveness suggested by academic research, most analysts predict that partisan gridlock and tech industry lobbying will keep the legislation from being passed before the November 2024 election. This lack of legislative action leaves the U.S. without robust ad transparency tools, making it difficult for the public to identify the sources behind political ads on digital platforms.


Advocates have called on tech platforms to prioritize the of more robust and user-friendly ad transparency tools ahead of the election. They argue that without meaningful reforms, the integrity of the democratic is at risk, leaving voters vulnerable to manipulation and deception.The Conversation

Steven Caplan, Adjunct Instructor of Communications and Marketing, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

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The Conversation

Storytelling strategies make communication about science more compelling



theconversation.com – Emma Frances Bloomfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, of Nevada, Las Vegas – 2024-07-11 07:26:49
A story that includes characters and focuses on what people care about can stand up to misinformation.
SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Emma Frances Bloomfield, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

As a science communication scholar, I've always supported vaccination and trusted medical experts – and I still do. As a new mom, however, I've been confronting new-to-me emotions and concerns while weighing decisions about my son's health.

Vaccines are incredibly effective and have minimal risks of side effects. But I began to see why some parents may hesitate because of the flood of content, especially online, about potential vaccine risks.

Part of what makes vaccine misinformation persuasive is its use of storytelling. Antivaccine advocates share powerful personal experiences of childhood illnesses or alleged vaccine side effects. It is rare, however, for scientists to use the same storytelling strategies to counter misinformation.


In my book “Science v. Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators, I explore how to use stories to in a compelling way about controversial science topics, vaccination. To me, stories contain characters, action, sequence, scope, a storyteller, and content to varying degrees. By this definition, a story could be a book, a news article, a social media post, or even a conversation with a friend.

While researching my book, I found that stories about science tend to be broad and abstract. On the other hand, science-skeptical stories tend to be specific and concrete. By borrowing some of the strategies of science-skeptical stories, I argue that evidence-backed stories about science can better compete with misinformation.

To make science's stories more concrete and engaging, it's important to put people in the story, explain science as a , and include what people care about.

woman and man with arms around each other looking at burned out house site
Stories hit home more when they include human characters and not just forces of nature.
VladTeodor/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Put people in the story

Science's stories often lack characters – at least, human ones. One easy way to make better stories is to include scientists making discoveries or performing experiments as the characters.

Characters can also be people affected by a scientific topic, or interested in learning more about it. For example, stories about climate change can include examples of people feeling the effects of more extreme weather , such as the devastating impacts of California wildfires on local communities.


Characters can also be storytellers who are sharing their personal experiences. For example, I started this article with a brief discussion of my personal vaccine decisions. I was not a hidden or voiceless narrator, but someone sharing an experience that I hope others can relate to.

Explain science as a process

People often think of science as objective and unbiased. But science is actually a human practice that constantly involves choices, missteps and biases.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the medical advice was not to mask. Scientists initially thought that masks didn't prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. However, after additional research, medical advice changed to masking, providing the public with the most updated and accurate knowledge.

If you explain science as a process, you can walk people through the sequence of how science is done and why researchers reach certain conclusions. Science communicators can emphasize how science is conducted and why people should trust the process of science to provide the most accurate conclusions possible given the available information.


Include what people care about

Scientific topics are important, but they may not always be the public's most pressing concerns. In April 2024, Gallup found that “the quality of the environment” was one of the lowest-ranked priorities among people in the U.S. Of those polled, 37% said they cared a great deal about it. More immediate issues, such as (55%), crime and violence (53%), the (52%), and hunger and homelessness (52%) ranked much higher.

Stories about the environment could weave in connections to higher-priority topics to emphasize why the content is important. For example, stories can include information about how mitigating climate change can work hand in hand with improving the economy and creating jobs.

Medical provider faces woman and child, in discussion
A pediatrician is a science communicator, and so is a parent who talks about their own medical experiences.
SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Telling science's stories

Scientists, of course, can be science communicators, but everyone can tell science's stories. When we share information online about health, or talk to friends and family about the weather, we contribute to information that circulates about science topics.

My son's pediatrician was a science communicator when she explained the vaccine schedule and ways to keep my son comfortable after receiving vaccines. I was a science communicator when I spoke to others about my decisions to fully vaccinate my son on the recommended schedule, and how he is now a healthy and happy 9-month-old.

When communicating about science topics, remember to borrow features from stories to strengthen your message. Think about all of a story's features – character, action, sequence, scope, storyteller and content – and how you might incorporate them into the topic. Everyone can find opportunities to strengthen their science communication, whether it's in their or in their everyday interactions with friends and family.The Conversation

Emma Frances Bloomfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


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AI supercharges data center energy use – straining the grid and slowing sustainability efforts



theconversation.com – Ayse Coskun, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Boston – 2024-07-11 07:26:28
A data center in Ashburn, Va., the heart of so-called Data Center Alley.
AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Ayse Coskun, Boston University

The artificial intelligence boom has had such a profound effect on big tech companies that their energy consumption, and with it their carbon emissions, have surged.

The spectacular of large language models such as ChatGPT has helped fuel this growth in energy demand. At 2.9 watt-hours per ChatGPT request, AI queries require about 10 times the electricity of traditional Google queries, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research firm. Emerging AI capabilities such as audio and generation are likely to add to this energy demand.

The energy needs of AI are shifting the calculus of energy companies. They're now exploring previously untenable options, such as restarting a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant that has been dormant since the infamous disaster in 1979.


Data centers have had continuous growth for decades, but the magnitude of growth in the still-young era of large language models has been exceptional. AI requires a lot more computational and data storage resources than the pre-AI rate of data center growth could .

AI and the grid

Thanks to AI, the electrical grid – in many places already near its capacity or prone to stability challenges – is experiencing more pressure than before. There is also a substantial lag between computing growth and grid growth. Data centers take one to two years to build, while adding new power to the grid requires over four years.

As a recent from the Electric Power Research Institute lays out, just 15 states contain 80% of the data centers in the U.S.. Some states – such as Virginia, home to Data Center Alley – astonishingly have over 25% of their electricity consumed by data centers. There are similar trends of clustered data center growth in other parts of the world. For example, Ireland has become a data center nation.

AI is having a big impact on the electrical grid and, potentially, the climate.

Along with the need to add more power generation to sustain this growth, nearly all countries have decarbonization goals. This means they are striving to integrate more renewable energy sources into the grid. Renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent: The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. The dearth of cheap, green and scalable energy storage means the grid faces an even bigger problem matching supply with demand.


Additional challenges to data center growth include increasing use of water cooling for efficiency, which strains limited fresh water sources. As a result, some communities are pushing back against new data center investments.

Better tech

There are several ways the industry is addressing this energy crisis. First, computing hardware has gotten substantially more energy efficient over the years in terms of the operations executed per watt consumed. Data centers' power use efficiency, a metric that shows the ratio of power consumed for computing versus for cooling and other , has been reduced to 1.5 on average, and even to an impressive 1.2 in advanced facilities. New data centers have more efficient cooling by using water cooling and external cool air when it's available.

Unfortunately, efficiency alone is not going to solve the sustainability problem. In fact, Jevons paradox points to how efficiency may result in an increase of energy consumption in the longer . In addition, hardware efficiency gains have slowed down substantially, as the industry has hit the limits of chip technology scaling.

To continue improving efficiency, researchers are designing specialized hardware such as accelerators, new integration technologies such as 3D chips, and new chip cooling techniques.


Similarly, researchers are increasingly studying and developing data center cooling technologies. The Electric Power Research Institute report endorses new cooling methods, such as air-assisted liquid cooling and immersion cooling. While liquid cooling has already made its way into data centers, only a few new data centers have implemented the still-in- immersion cooling.

a man wearing rubber gloves and a visor lowers a circuit board into a trough containing a liquid
Running computer servers in a liquid – rather than in air – could be a more efficient way to cool them.
Craig Fritz, Sandia National Laboratories

Flexible future

A new way of building AI data centers is flexible computing, where the key idea is to compute more when electricity is cheaper, more available and greener, and less when it's more expensive, scarce and polluting.

Data center operators can convert their facilities to be a flexible load on the grid. Academia and industry have provided early examples of data center demand response, where data centers regulate their power depending on power grid needs. For example, they can schedule certain computing tasks for off-peak hours.

Implementing broader and larger scale flexibility in power consumption requires innovation in hardware, software and grid-data center coordination. Especially for AI, there is much room to develop new strategies to tune data centers' computational loads and therefore energy consumption. For example, data centers can scale back accuracy to reduce workloads when training AI models.

Realizing this vision requires better modeling and forecasting. Data centers can try to better understand and predict their loads and conditions. It's also important to predict the grid load and growth.


The Electric Power Research Institute's load forecasting initiative involves activities to with grid planning and operations. Comprehensive monitoring and intelligent analytics – possibly relying on AI – for both data centers and the grid are essential for accurate forecasting.

On the edge

The U.S. is at a critical juncture with the explosive growth of AI. It is immensely difficult to integrate hundreds of megawatts of electricity demand into already strained grids. It might be time to rethink how the industry builds data centers.

One possibility is to sustainably build more edge data centers – smaller, widely distributed facilities – to bring computing to local communities. Edge data centers can also reliably add computing power to dense, urban regions without further stressing the grid. While these smaller centers currently make up 10% of data centers in the U.S., analysts project the market for smaller-scale edge data centers to grow by over 20% in the next five years.

Along with converting data centers into flexible and controllable loads, innovating in the edge data center may make AI's energy demands much more sustainable.The Conversation

Ayse Coskun, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Boston University


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What do storm chasers really do? Two tornado scientists take us inside the chase and tools for studying twisters



theconversation.com – Yvette Richardson, Professor of Meteorology, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Penn State – 2024-07-11 07:25:05
Scientists in a truck outfitted with instruments race toward a storm.
National Severe Storms Lab/NOAA

Yvette Richardson, Penn State and Paul Markowski, Penn State

Storm-chasing for science can be exciting and stressful – we know, because we do it. It has also been essential for developing 's understanding of how tornadoes form and how they behave.

In 1996 the movie “Twister” brought storm-chasing into the public imagination as scientists played by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton raced ahead of tornadoes to deploy their sensors and occasionally got too close. That inspired a generation of atmospheric scientists.

With the new movie “Twisters” coming out on July 19, 2024, we've been getting questions about storm-chasing – or storm intercepts, as we call them.


Here are some answers about what scientists who do this kind of fieldwork are up to when they race off after storms.

A tornado near Duke, Oklahoma, with a wheat field blowing in the foreground.
Scientists with the National Severe Storms Lab ‘intercepted' this to collect data using mobile radar and other instruments on May 24, 2024.
National Severe Storms Lab

What does a day of storm-chasing really look like?

The morning of a chase day starts with a good breakfast, because there might not be any to eat a good meal later in the day.

Before out, the team looks at the weather conditions, the National Weather Service computer forecast models and outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center to determine the target.

Our goal is to figure out where tornadoes are most likely to occur that day. Temperature, moisture and winds, and how these change with height above the ground, all provide clues.

There is a “hurry up and wait” cadence to a storm chase day. We want to get into position quickly, but then we're often waiting for storms to develop.

A radar image shows a storm cell with a hook at the back suggesting a tornado could form.
A ‘hook echo' on radar, typically a curl at the back of a storm cell, is one sign that a tornado could form. The hook reflects precipitation wrapping around the back side of the updraft.
National Severe Storms Lab

Storms often take time to develop before they're capable of producing tornadoes. So we watch the storm carefully on radar and with our eyes, if possible, staying well ahead of it until it matures. Often, we'll watch multiple storms and look for signs that one might be more likely to generate tornadoes.

Once the mission scientist declares a deployment, everyone scrambles to get into position.

We use a lot of different instruments to track and measure tornadoes, and there is an art to determining when to deploy them. Too early, and the tornado might not form where the instruments are. Too late, and we've missed it. Each instrument needs to be in a specific location relative to the tornado. Some need to be deployed well ahead of the storm and then stay stationary. Others are car-mounted and are driven back and forth within the storm.

A row of seven minivans, SUVS and jeeps with racks on top holding the sorts of instruments one might see in a weather station.
Vehicle-mounted equipment can act as mobile weather stations known as mesonets. These were used in the VORTEX2 research project. Dozens of scientists, including the authors, succeeded in recording the entire cycle of a supercell tornado during VORTEX2 in 2009.
Yvette Richardson

If all goes well, team members will be concentrating on the data coming in. Some will be launching weather balloons at various distances from the tornado, while others will be placing “pods” containing weather instruments directly in the path of the tornado.

A whole network of observing stations will have been set up across the storm, with radars collecting data from multiple angles, photographers capturing the storm from multiple angles, and instrumented vehicles transecting key areas of the storm.

Not all of our work is focused on the tornado itself. We often target areas around the tornado or within other parts of the storm to understand how the rotation forms. Theories suggest that this rotation can be generated by temperature variations within the storm's precipitation region, potentially many miles from where the tornado forms.

An illustration shows a thunderstorm cloud with an updraft with a smaller downdraft behind it. Both are spinning. A spinning football indicates the type of spin.
Formation of a tornado: Changes in wind speed and direction with altitude, known as wind shear, are associated with horizontal spin, similar to that of a football. As this spinning is drawn into the storm's updraft, the updraft rotates. A separate air stream descends through a precipitation-driven downdraft and acquires horizontal spin because of temperature differences along the air stream. This spinning air can be tilted into the vertical and sucked upward by the supercell's updraft, contracting the spin near the ground into a tornado.
Paul Markowski/Penn State

Through all of this, the teams stay in contact using text messages and software that allows us to see everyone's position relative to the latest radar images. We're also watching the for the next day so we can plan where to go next and find hotel rooms and, hopefully, a late dinner.

What do all those instruments tell you about the storm?

One of the most important tools of storm-chasing is weather radar. It captures what's happening with precipitation and winds above the ground.

We use several types of radars, typically attached to trucks so we can move fast. Some transmit with a longer wavelength that helps us see farther into a storm, but at the cost of a broader width to their beam, resulting in a fuzzier picture. They are good for collecting data across the entire storm.

Smaller-wavelength radars cannot penetrate as far into the precipitation, but they do offer the high-resolution view necessary to capture small-scale phenomena like tornadoes. We put these radars closer to the developing tornado.

An inside look at some of the mobile systems and tools scientists use in storm-chasing, including how team members monitor storms in real time.

We also monitor wind, air pressure, temperature and humidity along the ground using various instruments attached to moving vehicles, or by temporarily deploying stationary arrays of these instruments ahead of the approaching storm. Some of these are meant to be hit by the tornado.


Weather balloons provide crucial data, too. Some are designed to ascend through the atmosphere and capture the conditions outside the storm. Others travel through the storm itself, measuring the important temperature variations in the rain-cooled air beneath the storm. Scientists are now using drones in the same way in parts of the storm.

Symbols show the paths of over 70 balloon-borne probes that the authors' team launched into a supercell thunderstorm. The probes, carried by the wind, mapped the temperature in the storm's downdraft region, which can be a critical source of rotation for tornadoes. Luke LeBel/Penn State

All of this gives scientists insight into the processes happening throughout the storm before and during tornado development and throughout the tornado's lifetime.

How do you stay safe while chasing tornadoes?

Storms can be very dangerous and unpredictable, so it's important to always stay on top of the radar and watch the storm.

A storm can cycle, developing a new tornado downstream of the previous one. Tornadoes can change direction, particularly as they are dying or when they have a complex structure with multiple funnels. Storm chasers know to look at the entire storm, not just the tornado, and to be on alert for other storms that might sneak up. An escape plan based on the storm's expected motion and the road network is essential.

In 1947, the Thunderstorm Project was the first large-scale U.S. scientific study of thunderstorms and the first to use radar and airplanes. Other iconic projects followed, including ones that deployed a Totable Tornado Observatory, or Toto, which inspired the ‘Dorothy' instrument in the movie ‘Twister.'

Scientists take calculated risks when they're storm chasing – enough to collect crucial data, but never putting their teams in too much danger.


It turns out that driving is actually the most dangerous part of storm-chasing, particularly when roads are wet and visibility is poor – as is often the case at the end of the day. During the chase, the driving danger can be compounded by erratic driving of other storm chasers and traffic jams around storms.

What happens to all the data you collect while storm-chasing?

It would be nice to have immediate eureka moments, but the results take time.

After we collect the data, we spend years analyzing it. Combining data from all the instruments to get a complete picture of the storm and how it evolved takes time and patience. But data on the wind, temperature, relative humidity and pressure from many different angles and instruments allows us to test theories about how tornadoes develop.

Although the analysis process is slow, the discoveries are often as exciting as the tornado itself.The Conversation

Yvette Richardson, Professor of Meteorology, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Penn State and Paul Markowski, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology, Penn State


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