New Facebook political ad rules: Now you must prove your ID before undermining democracy

The horse is a speck on the horizon – but at least the barn door now has a bolt on it


Facebook has rolled out its promised disclosure regime for political and issue advertising, heralding a new age of transparency and civic responsibility. Or so Facebook folks suggest.

"We believe that increased transparency will lead to increased accountability and responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well," declared Rob Leathern, director of product management in a blog post today. "We’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to proactively identify abuse."

Since the 2016 presidential election in the US, on through the Justice Department's February indictment of 13 Russians and three companies for alleged election interference and the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, the social ad network has been under pressure to take more responsibility for misuses of its platform.

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CEO Mark Zuckerberg, previously incredulous about the possibility of online election meddling, just completed a testimony tour where he entertained US and European legislators with expressions of concern and commitments to greater responsibility. Now come the changes to policies and practice.

The new system involves labeling, archiving, and scrutinizing political and issue ads, along with a marginally more demanding advertiser verification process.

Going forward, the company says all election-related and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the US will be required to be clearly labelled with a "Paid for by" disclosure at the top of the ad.

What isn't clear is how deeply this will be checked. Potentially anyone could set up a group called "Concerned citizens for democracy" and run ads, but you still wouldn't know who was funding it.

The label itself will lead to an archive with more information about the ad and the number of people who saw it, alongside demographic data such as age, location and gender.

The ad archive is intended to serve as a searchable public repository for political and issue ads. It will store digital solicitations for seven years and will include an API to assist researchers.

Facebook users turn ad cops

As a defense against deception, those wanting to run issue or political ads via the Facebook platform are now required to verify their name and location.

"I want to emphasize how seriously we're taking this issue and the resources we're dedicating to it," said Steve Satterfield, director of public policy, on a media call prior to Thursday's announcement.

Such seriousness isn't yet an assurance of success. The company doesn't expect every ad will be accurately labelled. During the media call, Leathern conceded there will be ads the company doesn't catch. In such circumstances, Facebook wants its users to serve as a safety net.

"If a person sees a political ad that doesn't have a label and needs one, we're asking them to report it," he said.

Machine learning and related AI will be helping out too, for what that's worth.

Just what constitutes a political or issue ad? There's no precise definition, so Facebook has come up with a list of 20 national issues of public importance – e.g. education, guns and health – that will require advertiser verification and labelling.

Maybe. Katie Harbath, global politics and government outreach director, explained that an ad focused on student loan policies would qualify as a covered ad while an ad focused on student enrollment would not.

In an email to The Register, Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher who runs ad consultancy Marketing Science, said Facebook's efforts "will definitely help. But only the good guys will comply. As you know, the bad guys will just find another way to get around it."

Earlier this month, US Congress released more than 3,000 Facebook ads and posts purchased and generated before and after the 2016 US presidential elections by Russian trolls seeking to further divide America with political messaging. ®

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