Facebook opts to label political ads — but experts say their plan is deeply flawed

Facebook's promise to restrict political ads prompts a flurry of new rules, often governed by opaque algorithms

Published May 24, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Salon)
Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Salon)

Just in time for primary election season and ahead of the 2018 midterms, Facebook announced Thursday it will start labeling political and issue ads on the social network — a move intended to prevent another foreign propaganda situation whereby bad actors purchase political ads intended to influence elections.

Fulfilling a promise it made last year, the social media giant revealed a new labeling system, which will show users who paid for a political ad and demographic information for audiences who were targeted by it.

Advertisers will also need to register with Facebook by "confirming their identity and location" with the company.

"Starting today, all election-related and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. must be clearly labeled – including a 'Paid for by' disclosure from the advertiser at the top of the ad," said Rob Leathern, Director of Product Management at Facebook. "This will help ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad – which is especially important when the Page name doesn't match the name of the company or person funding the ad."

Political ads will now come with an explicit disclosure, noting who paid for the ad.  Users who click on any of those disclosures will be able to visit a special archive page for the ad, where they can see other ads bought by the advertiser as well as how much money the advertiser paid for the campaign and the audiences it targeted.

Users from around the world can also visit the page "Political Content Ads" to browse any political or issue ads an advertiser has run in the United States for up to seven years — a period the company decided on to ensure it covers a full Senate cycle of six years. The company plans to launch similar labeling and archiving features to other countries around the world in the coming months.

This change is in line with Facebook's recent attempts to improve user engagement and raise public trust.

The social networking behemoth has come under fire for virally spreading misinformation, harboring a plethora of fake accounts and, most recently, breaches of trust — particularly the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, an election consultancy used by President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, had accessed personal data from as many as 87 million users without their knowledge. In public testimony, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed regret over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and tried to sell Facebook as a communitarian tool rather than an advertising company that profits off monetizing its users personal data.

The recent data scandal wiped away tens of billions of dollars from Facebook’s market value, sparked scrutiny from politicians of every stripe, and even prompted public discourse over the once-unthinkable notion that Mark Zuckerberg should step down as CEO and chairman of the company. It also reignited long-simmering questions about the menace it poses to the world’s privacy, civil discourse and domestic democratic institutions.

Zuckerberg faced two days of questions on Capitol Hill about Facebook’s responsibilities to users and data collection practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

"We think these features set a new standard for transparency in visual advertising, and they're part of our broader election integrity work," Leathern said. He then noted that Facebook might not catch every political ad that is not properly labeled, and said Facebook encourages users to report improperly labeled ads. Facebook will then review them, he said, and if it turns out that the advertiser violated Facebook's political advertising policy, it "will be prevented from running election-related and issue ads until they complete the authorization process."

"This is the tool that makes it easier for you to find problems, and that's something that we want," he continued. "We invite you to report any ad so we get better, faster."

Some people have argued that getting rid of political ads on Facebook is the only sure-fire way of protecting against foreign election meddling, while others have made the case that barring political ads on Facebook would unfairly favor incumbent politicians and candidates with deep pockets.

Digital advertising is usually more affordable than television or print ads, providing less well-funded politicians, NGOs, researchers and journalists a relatively economical way to get their message out.

Facebook's new ad labeling perhaps extends beyond ads that are shown on TV, as it plans to label issue-based ads as political in addition to ads from candidates and campaigns. The social network is using a list of 20 wide-ranging issues to classify political ads. The list includes issues like education and guns, but also ads that make political statements about health, taxes and values — some of which have messaging that might be difficult to classify as explicitly political.

"One of the important considerations around regulating and restricting political ads is taking steps to prevent those rules from inadvertently sweeping up non-partisan journalistic content," said Parker Higgins, Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "Unfortunately, some of the more simplistic heuristics for categorizing political ads include those kinds of stories—stories that can change the outcome of elections, but only through creating a more informed population."

"Facebook of course has the right to bar any kinds of ads it wants, but lots of media outlets have found Facebook advertising worthwhile and it would be frustrating to see that tossed aside in the name of a blanket ban," Higgins added.

Norman Shamas, an independent cyber security consultant, said with Facebook, "it all comes down to trust."

"The efficacy of ads and information campaigns relies heavily on the audience’s understanding of media literacy, algorithm literacy," Shamas said. "Facebook's role in this is that they aren’t transparent about algorithm design and how they relate to targeted ads or even recognition of information campaigns."

"Transparency around what algorithms they have, what data they use, and whether they are implementing the algorithms (and why/why not) is important," Shamas added.

Felicia Cravens, a Texan who runs a Facebook page called Unfakery that helps track down fraudulent accounts, said is concerned about the list of items Facebook is considering "political" and "how they could possibly intend to fairly and equitably review the massive amounts of political advertising that will be purchased for candidates and issues at all levels."

"Too often when Facebook is confronted with a problem, they apply a patch or a one-size-fits-all solution that they inevitably have to walk back later," Cravens said. "This leaves many people confused and unsure which policies are in place at any given time."

"With something as important as political ads, Facebook again seems to be bumbling around, trying to find a workable solution that will scale to a wide variety of scenarios," Cravens added. "And given that so much of American life is becoming politicized, things that wouldn't be seen as political before now will be."

By Shira Tarlo

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