Facebook to strengthen transparency standards for political ads in wake of Russian election interference

  • Facebook's new policies include labeling political ads so they're easier to identify, and creating a catalogue of these and other ads so users can see how much advertisers are paying and who they are targeting.
  • Ads on the platform sought to stir social and political unrest in the United States around issues like Black Lives Matter, not necessarily to promote candidates like Donald Trump.
  • Facebook plans to begin testing these new disclosure policies in Canada before rolling them out in the United States in time for the 2018 midterm elections.

Facebook is trying to make it easier to identify political ads in your News Feed.

The social giant announced on Friday it will soon require advertisers — especially political candidates — to disclose more information about their advertising efforts on the platform as the company seeks to temper concerns from the U.S. Congress about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook's new policies include labeling political ads so they're easier to identify, and creating a catalogue of these and other ads so users can see how much advertisers are paying and who they are targeting.

But many of the changes intended to create more transparency don't appear to address the most problematic ads purchased last year by Kremlin-backed, online trolls. These ads, referred to as "issue ads," sought to stir social and political unrest in the United States around issues like Black Lives Matter, not necessarily to promote candidates like Donald Trump.

Still, the announcements Friday come as Facebook prepares for what could be a brutal grilling before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The panels are investigating Russia's suspected interference in the 2016 presidential election, and they'll also hear from senior executives at Google and Twitter during back-to-back hearings on Nov. 1.

Under the new policy, Facebook is making two new, key demands of its broad universe of advertisers.

First, political campaigns and advocacy groups that seek to run election-time ads about a federal candidate must indicate — to the company and users alike — that they're doing so. Those ads, when presented to Facebook users, will have a new feature in which viewers can swipe up to learn more about the political candidate.

Meanwhile, Facebook will set up a new hub for all advertisers — political or otherwise — where users can see all current ad campaigns running on the site. For these ads, marketers will also have to share basic demographic targeting information.

Facebook plans to begin testing these new disclosure policies in Canada before rolling them out in the United States in time for the 2018 midterm elections. Initially, they'll only show active ads, the company said in a blog post Friday. But once the new system rolls out in the U.S., Facebook will begin building a searchable, four-year archive of political ads run on its site.

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Facebook isn't the only company promising greater transparency around political ads. Twitter, for example, has revealed its own changes designed to make political ads more transparent, similar to Facebook's new policies. Google might soon do the same. And all of these pledges seem designed with one goal in mind: Staving off federal regulation.

Lawmakers like Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, are pushing potential new laws that would require large tech and advertising platforms to make much more information available about the political ads they run. But Facebook and its peers haven't exactly endorsed the plan, called the Honest Ads Act. Instead, they've sought to prove they can regulate themselves.

For its part, Facebook disagreed with the assessment that its announcements Friday are meant to ward off the U.S. Congress.

"We are trying to urgently fix the problem," said Rob Goldman, the company's vice president of product for ads and pages, in an interview before the announcement. He stressed that the company "feel[s] strongly about what happened."

Previously, though, Facebook lobbied against more extensive political ad disclosure rules. And the company's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, also initially rejected the influence of Russian trolls on his own platform before ultimately admitting that dismissal was a bad idea. Facebook then promised to hire 1,000 new workers to monitor ads.

Still, the new details announced Friday might not satisfy Facebook's federal overseers. For one thing, the changes don't apply to those so-called "issue ads" — think political endeavors around immigration, gun control or gay rights that don't actually involve a federal candidate by name.

It's precisely those sort of ads that Russian trolls purchased around the 2016 election. At times, suspicious Kremlin-tied profiles and pages even took both sides of controversial issues in the hopes of creating social and political tensions on the platform. But they would only trigger Facebook's new transparency guidelines if they mentioned a candidate by name. The new bill by Warner and crew, in contrast, seems to cover these issue-based ads.

And Facebook's revised system is largely the stuff of self regulation: The burden is on political candidates and campaigns, as well as their allies, to disclose their efforts to Facebook. For now, the company hopes that's enough — and believes its users, on top of its previous pledges to invest more in people and technology to monitor ads, can spot anyone failing to self-identify as a political advertiser.

Nevertheless, the announcements by Facebook on Friday still amount to a new, major change for the company, as it endeavors to demystify why its users see the ads they do. Even with limited information about ad targeting centralized in one place — data including age and gender — viewers and watchdog groups alike can keep closer watch over the platform.

And Facebook's Goldman suggested to Recode there could be more to come. Asked about the absence of issue ads in its new policy, he said: "Over time we may roll out features like this in other places or other ways."

By Tony Romm and Kurt Wagner, Recode.net.

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