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Facebook announced new transparency rules Friday for political ads. File photo/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Facebook ads: Social media giant announces new transparency

WASHINGTON — Under pressure in advance of hearings on Russian election interference, Facebook is moving to increase transparency for everyone who sees and buys political advertising on its site.

Executives for the social media company said Friday they will verify political ad buyers in federal elections, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations. The site will also create new graphics where users can click on the ads and find out more about who’s behind them.

More broadly, Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president in charge of ad products, said the company is building new transparency tools in which all advertisers — even those that aren’t political — are associated with a page, and users can click on a link to see all of the ads any advertiser is running.

Users also will be able to see all of the ads paid for by the advertisers, whether or not those ads were originally targeted toward them.

The move comes after the company acknowledged it had found more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia that focused on divisive U.S. social issues and were seen by an estimated 10 million people before and after the 2016 U.S. elections.

Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify in Congress next Tuesday and Wednesday on how their platforms were used by Russia or other foreign actors in the election campaign. The Senate and House intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee are all holding hearings as part of their investigations into Russian election interference.

Facebook’s announcement comes a day after Twitter said it will ban ads from RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored Russian news outlets. Twitter also has said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted.

Facebook’s Goldman said the company also will build a new archive of federal election ads on Facebook, including the total amount spent and the number of times an ad is displayed, he said. The archive, which will be public for anyone to search, would also have data on the audience that saw the ads, including gender and location information. The archive would eventually hold up to four years of data.

Goldman said the company is still building the new features. They plan to test them in Canada and roll them out in the United States by next summer ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“This is a good first step but it’s not at all the last step, there’s a lot to learn once we start testing,” Goldman said in an interview.

Facebook already had announced in September that the platform would require an advertiser to disclose who paid for the ads and what other ads it was running at the same time. But it was unclear exactly how the company would do that.

The moves are meant to bring Facebook more in line with what is now required of print and broadcast advertisers. Federal regulations require television and radio stations to make publicly available the details of political ads they air. That includes who runs the ad, when it runs and how much it costs.

It is also likely meant to head off bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and try to ensure they are not purchased by foreigners. Though Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democratic co-sponsor of the legislation, has said his bill would be “the lightest touch possible,” social media companies would rather set their own guidelines than face new regulation.

Facebook has responded swiftly to the attention it has received in recent months on Capitol Hill, boosting staff and lobbying efforts. The company has spent more than $8.4 million in lobbying Congress and the rest of the government through the third quarter of this year, according to federal records.

The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, visited several congressional offices this month to convey that the company is taking the issue seriously. Facebook has also turned over the 3,000 ads to Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller, who is doing his own investigation of Russian interference in the election and whether it was tied to President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Warner, who is the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said on Thursday that the moves by the social media companies in the week leading up to the hearings “show a growing recognition of how serious this problem is.” Still, he said, he wants to see at the hearings next week a “fuller disclosure of exactly what happened in 2016.”

Some analysts have warned that policing such online election ads can be difficult. It’s one thing to enforce advertising rules for a print newspaper or a TV station, where real humans can vet each ad before it is printed or aired. But that is much more complicated when automated advertising platforms allow millions of advertisers — basically anyone with a credit card and internet access — to place an ad.

To address that challenge, Goldman says his company will try to create new tools for enforcement.

“For political advertisers that do not proactively disclose themselves, we are building machine learning tools that will help us find them and require them to verify their identity,” he said in a Facebook blog post.
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Associated Press writer Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report from New York.

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