Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the company will bring more transparency into its political advertisements, responding to criticism that it has not done enough to prevent the manipulation of elections. Video provided by Reuters Newslook
SAN FRANCISCO — In the weeks before the U.S. election, Valerie Robinson says she was bombarded by political ads on Facebook attacking Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act.
It was only after Facebook disclosed that hundreds of fake accounts out of Russia injected inflammatory ads on politically divisive issues into unsuspecting Facebook users’ news feeds that her annoyance turned to anger.
Whether or not she was being targeted by shadowy foreign interests, this 37-year-old lifestyle blogger from Washington, D.C. says she has the right to know who’s behind the political ads that pop up on Facebook.
“I would like some more transparency, some more due diligence and more care with what’s being disseminated to the public,” Robinson said.
Lawmakers and pundits have blasted Facebook over revelations it sold approximately $100,000 worth of political ads from fake accounts and pages out of Russia. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pressured by lawmakers,has promised to take steps to deter foreign governments from using Facebook to manipulate elections.
For users like Robinson, those kinds of steps are key to restoring trust in the giant social network already tattered by the spread of election-related misinformation during the election.
Critics say the proposed changes don’t go far enough. They are calling for regulators, who have not kept up with the fast-growing political ads business on social media, to rein in Facebook.
“Consumers are aware that something is wrong now, but they do not have the power and agency to fix it themselves. They cannot make the changes that our democracy requires. This needs to come from our elected officials,” Jennifer Grygiel, a professor who studies social media at Syracuse University.
Facebook became one of the world’s most valuable companies by giving advertisers the ability to target its 2 billion-plus users based on a vast trove of personal information, from where they live to what movies they like. Misuse of those tools has plunged Facebook into controversy, from targeting people who expressed interest in anti-Semitic topics such as “jew hater” to excluding specific racial and ethnic groups when placing housing ads.
Now Facebook is being scrutinized for Russian ads that attempted to deepen political divisions by focusing on hot-button social issues such as immigration and gun rights during and after the presidential election.
Facebook has said little publicly about the ads — not what they looked like, how many people they reached or who the targets were. But the revelation has some lawmakers and regulators reconsidering their laissez-faire approach to online political ads.
From the start, tech giants resisted regulation of political ads.
In 2006, when the Federal Election Commission formulated rules in 2006 governing political advertising on the internet, it imposed few restrictions. Unlike political ads on TV, radio and newspapers: Online political ads don’t carry disclosures.
Google first finagled an exemption from the Federal Election Campaign Act — the 1971 law governing political advertising — in 2010. A year later, the Federal Election Commission deadlocked over whether Facebook should be required to say who was paying for the ad in the ad itself. Facebook argued that its ads were too small to include the disclosure and that regulating political ads would stifle innovation.
Much has changed since then. Facebook began putting larger ads in people’s news feeds in 2012. And, since the 2012 presidential election, Facebook has become an indispensable tool for political campaigns looking to reach voters and donors.
In fact, during election cycles, political campaigns are among Facebook’s biggest advertisers. And, while political ads still make up just a small slice of Facebook’s ad revenue, that slice is growing.
Political digital advertising, which includes email, search, video, mobile and social media, reached $1.4 billion during the 2016 election cycle, according to tracking firm Borrell Associates. That’s 14% of total political ad spending — TV gets a nearly 45% share — but represented a nearly 800% jump from the $159 million spent in 2012. Facebook alone raked in $390 million, according to Borrell Associates.
“It has been more than a decade since the commission has fully examined how best to regulate political spending on the Internet — an eternity in online years,” FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub wrote in an Washington Post op-ed. “Americans have the right to know who’s paying for the ever-more-influential political material that’s popping up in our social media feeds.”
Most people didn’t spend much time thinking about how a political ad in their news feed got there, or who was behind it until Russians used Facebook’s automated ad-buying system to influence American voters.
Over the coming months political ads on Facebook will begin to include the disclosures people are used to hearing on the radio or seeing in newspapers or on television, Zuckerberg says. And political ads, every single one of them, will show up on the Facebook page that paid for them. Such a move would counter the problem of “dark posts” — ads that only the targeted user can see.
Facebook is making these changes to get ahead of attempts by Congress and government agencies to increase oversight of political ads on the Internet.
Two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner, are working on legislation. And the Federal Election Commission is talking to Facebook, Google and Twitter about potential new rules. Among the possibilities under consideration: requiring online political ads to carry disclosures, creating a database of political ads and banning the automated sale of political ads.
Some of the steps being contemplated by Facebook and regulators could close loopholes that political campaigns have exploited in Facebook’s ad-buying system.
On Facebook, advertisers can upload lists of voters and supporters to target specific users as well as “lookalike” users who share similar demographics and traits.
U.S. President Donald Trump took a swing at Facebook on Friday – a day after the social media giant vowed to step up its fight to protect election integrity – dismissing the Facebook ads controversy as a ‘Russia hoax’. Video provided by Reuters Newslook
But, while ads in a newspaper or on the radio or TV are seen or heard by — and can be fact-checked by — a broad cross section of people, Facebook users may see entirely different ads than their friends depending on who’s targeting them and how. That allows campaigns to send out precisely targeted messages that travel under the political radar.
Another problem: “dark posts” on Facebook. These nonpublic ads, that do not show up on the Facebook page that places them, stirred controversy during the 2016 presidential election. Bloomberg discovered that the Trump campaign sought to depress Hillary Clinton’s voter turnout by targeting African-American voters with a South Park-style animation that said: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.”
One of the biggest challenges for Facebook and regulators: Defining what an ad is in the social media age. Facebook pages can promote news articles, videos, memes and more to manipulate voter sentiment. These promoted posts don’t look like typical campaign ads but, especially on provocative topics, their messages can spread quickly at relatively low cost, gaining traction beyond the target audience.
“If the Facebook ads just riled up people on guns but did not mention Trump for example, but were intended to help Trump get elected, can those be illegal? That’s the harder question,” Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law said.