Pressure has been mounting on Facebook and its leadership to make big privacy changes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—in which it lost control over extensive data on what it now says are 87 million users—and after weeks of hedging and minor tweaks around the margins, the company has begun to make other concessions like vaguely committing to EU-style privacy rules. On Friday, in what feels like a ploy to reassure the public they’ll have a plan on the related issue of foreign election interference before the 2018 midterms, Facebook detailed how it will make political advertising more transparent.
The stakes are high here. While the extent to which an alleged Russian operation to flood Facebook with disinformation and propaganda before the 2016 elections actually swayed them in favour of Donald Trump is unclear, the PR fallout from it is not. If Facebook doesn’t prevent the Russians from reaching an alleged 126 million users again during the 2018 midterms or a future election, it could compound its ongoing issues and be forced to deal with angry legislators.
Facebook VPs Rob Goldman and Alex Himel wrote in a post to the company’s blog that in addition to their previously announced plan to only let verified users run electoral ads, that requirement will now be extended “to anyone that wants to show ‘issue ads’—like political topics that are being debated across the country.” Additionally, they wrote, all issue ads will be marked “Political Ad,” with a “paid for by” box next to it. The VPs added that they are testing a feature to make all ads paid for by a page searchable, as well as “release a public, searchable political ads archive.” They wrote said archive will contain “additional information like the amount spent and demographic audience information for each ad.”
Finally, the company will require pages with large followings to verify their identities.
“These steps by themselves won’t stop all people trying to game the system,” Zuckerberg wrote in a separate post to his wall. “But they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads.”
These are all productive changes, but let’s remember that Facebook operates on a huge scale, and its plan to verify ad buyers relies on mailing them postcards. It’s not going to be hard for potential bad actors or pseudonymous parties to slip through—just kind of inconvenient. Verifying pages may not do all that much to prevent them from running non-paid propaganda, and in fact less than 10 per cent of the alleged Russian operation in 2016's reach was derived from paid ads.
This system can only work if Facebook is stringent about identifying and removing bad actors from their systems, which is already a gamble with the high-profile problem of US election interference given their extreme delay in acknowledging any problem at all. It’s certainly one you should feel very sceptical about working elsewhere, away from the prying eyes of the US press. And in any case, saying an advertisement was paid for by a specific page or individual verified by Facebook is not true transparency, though concerned citizens can trace the real roots of the dark money problem to decisions made by the government.
As for the transparency rules? These are similar to the rules that already exist for non-digital political advertising that Facebook has long fought to be exempt from. As the New York Times noted, before the events of the past few weeks, the company actively resisted changes to its exempt status with the excuse that identifying which ads were political or not would require too much manpower.
But in December 2017, the Federal Election Commission said that it planned to make Facebook comply by disclosure rules without giving a timeline for implementation. So to the extent that Facebook and crew have made a sudden 180, it’s probably getting ahead of a decision they eventually would have been compelled to make by regulators.