Facebook critics torch its do-nothing stance on false political advertising

Key Points
  • Facebook will soon let users limit their exposure to political ads but made no changes to microtargeting or fact-checking the content, which critics had called for.
  • Facebook has stood firm in its policies on those issues.
  • The company and researchers called for regulation of digital political advertising to provide clearer guidelines.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO testifies during a Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing where they testified on the influence of foreign operations on social media on September 5, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

With academics and politicians badgering Facebook to limit microtargeting and enable fact-checking on political ads, the company rolled out adjustments that ignored those issues altogether.

The latest iteration of Facebook's political ads policy lets users choose "to see fewer political and social issue ads" on their services and limit political and commercial advertisers' ability to target them with custom lists. Facebook will also give users the ability to include themselves in an advertiser's audience, even if the advertiser excludes them from that list.

The proposals appear to be generally positive on face value, several experts in political communication told CNBC, but they are unlikely to do much to change how users interact with political ads on Facebook, especially since the site will rely on users to proactively decide to make the changes.

"They didn't do very much," Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told CNBC. "They've been talking for a while about, oh, they're thinking about making changes. ... They made it sound like they really were thinking about doing something serious."

Weintraub, a Democrat, said she was disappointed Facebook's tweaks didn't go further. After she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post condemning the use of microtargeting for online platforms, Weintraub said Facebook employees called her to discuss some of their proposals for changing the policy. After speaking with them, Weintraub said, "I was really expecting something a lot more substantive than this."

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. An internal memo first published by The New York Times on Tuesday revealed some of Facebook's thinking behind its political ads policy. In the memo, Andrew Bosworth, a long-time executive who ran the company's advertising organization leading up to the 2016 election, warned employees not to tilt the scales against a reelection win for President Donald Trump. The Trump campaign has criticized tech companies' moves to limit political advertising, following a successful digital campaign in 2016.

"As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear," Bosworth wrote in the memo, which he later posted on his Facebook page. He added that Trump's 2016 election was not due to "Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica."

"He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I've ever seen from any advertiser. Period," Bosworth wrote.

There is still disagreement among academicians over the extent to which social media companies should limit microtargeting or fact-check ads. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor and author of "Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President," said she's wary of calls for Facebook to determine truth on its own, but she thinks the platform should display third-party fact checking from Facebook's partners next to the ads. Jamieson is a co-founder of one of those partners,

A digital political ethics guide recently released by four researchers concluded that "microtargeting is not all bad," though some limitations are worth considering. The researchers consulted with tech companies and political advertisers before issuing recommendations.

Adam Sheingate, a co-author of the report and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, said Facebook's announcement doesn't do much to address their recommendations, though the changes seem positive as long as they don't amplify users' echo chambers.

He called Facebook's latest change "a Band-Aid or maybe even a larger distraction" from other issues.

"This looks to me kind of like a piecemeal solution given the larger criticism Facebook is getting over its unwillingness to kind of tackle the problems of lies and misinformation on their platform," Sheingate said.

Facebook has also promised to make its database of political ads more transparent and searchable, including a range of estimated target audiences for political, electoral and social issue ads.

Another co-author of the report, University of North Carolina media and communications professor Daniel Kreiss, applauded Facebook's steps toward transparency but said he'd still like see Facebook provide a way for political advertisers to target the same audiences as their opponents.

When advertisers target audiences based on their own custom lists, Kreiss said, it's hard for researchers and other advertisers to know the common traits that defined that audience. Kreiss said if other advertisers could retarget those same groups with their own messages, it could provide a counter-measure against misinformation.

"They sidestepped the debate, at least indirectly, about whether they were going to fact-check stuff," Kreiss said of Facebook. "There's a lot of stuff that I think was kind of left out of the whole thing."

Facebook ended its announcement of the policy change calling for regulation like the Honest Ads Act to give it more defined guidelines around political advertising online. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. reintroduced the bill in May. It was originally introduced in October 2017.

In a statement Thursday, Klobuchar, who is also running for president, made the same call while slamming Facebook for its new policies.

"It is wrong to take money from political campaigns in exchange for disseminating blatant lies to the American people," she said. "It is also wrong that Facebook is immune from any liability for the reckless political ads they sell. We must have rules of the road to ensure that Americans can trust the news they see online."

Politicians are still able to run ads with lies and misleading information through more traditional mediums such as television. Broadcasters are required to run ads from candidates for federal office to ensure same access to equal airtime. But the structure of broadcast TV prevents narrow targeting possible on digital platforms that can obscure messages from a greater audience.

In the absence of regulation, Kreiss said he has "sympathy" for Facebook and other tech companies that are navigating murky waters.

"There is no regulation and there is no regulatory body that can make coherent and standardized decisions that would apply across the industry," he said, "and I think that's desperately needed."

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