Facebook is facing a new push to reveal how its vast power is being used after it disclosed that roughly $100,000 worth of political ads were purchased on its platform by fake accounts and pages connected to a Russian troll operation. Open government advocates and researchers who study political ads told BuzzFeed News that Facebook’s massive reach and lack of transparency about ads on its platform represent a risk to the democratic process.
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency, said highly targeted online ads can be “weaponized against liberal democracies” because they do not meet the same levels of disclosure and visibility as traditional radio, TV, and print ads.
“It removes our ability to have transparency into who is trying to influence our politics, and any accountability for that influence,” Howard said. “And it takes away from the capacity of the traditional organs of democracy — that being the press and regulators and other institutions — to figure out who is behind political messaging, particularly at crucial times.”
Facebook and other tech giants have largely steered clear of major regulation in the United States despite their huge role in society. But concerns about the manipulation of political advertising by foreign entities and other parties is likely to increase government and regulatory scrutiny.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said today that there may be a need to introduce new requirements for social media platforms running political ads.
"An American can still figure out what content is being used on TV advertising. ... But in social media there's no such requirement," Warner said, according to CNN. "There may be a reform process here. I actually think the social media companies would not oppose, because I think Americans, particularly when it comes to elections, ought to be able to know if there is foreign-sponsored content coming into their electoral process."
Howard said the social platforms either need to come up with their own solution or be prepared to face government intervention.
“There’s two different ways this can go,” Howard said. “Either these technology companies can show that they understand that transparency and disclosure of political ad spending on their networks is now a matter of significant public interest, and act to voluntarily disclose. ... Or we’re going to see governments be reactive, and traditionally that’s when bad laws are made.”
Of particular focus for critics and congressional investigators is the use of so-called dark post ads by Russian trolls, as well as by campaigns, PACs, and other entities, to target specific Americans by geography, interest, and other data points. The Trump campaign invested tens of millions of dollars in targeted Facebook ads, and campaign strategists have openly credited this approach as being a major factor in victory.
Dark post ads — which Facebook calls “Unpublished Page post ads” — appear in a person's News Feed like any other ad, but are only visible to those being targeted. There is no way to identify the dark post ads being run by a particular page or account on Facebook. That means academics who have spent decades tracking and analyzing political ads, as well as fact checkers who try to keep campaigns and PACs honest, might never see the messages being fed to voters.
“It’s just very one-sided and that’s when you get into aspects of propaganda in my mind,” said Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership, which runs a project to track and analyze political advertising.
She believes campaigns and PACs will invest more of their advertising budgets in targeted online ads, fundamentally changing the way political advertising is done in the US.
“It’s gonna change how the campaigns are operating from this point forward and I don’t know that any of this is really good,” she said.
Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads aired on broadcast television during state and federal elections, said the trend is toward less knowledge and accountability for political ads, rather than more.
“I think it is unlikely that we will ever have as much knowledge about the content of advertising as we had previously,” Fowler told BuzzFeed News by email. “This poses challenges for researchers but it also poses challenges for accountability in democracy. If candidates (and outside groups) can say different things to different voters, it is harder to hold them accountable for campaign promises.”
Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer previously told Reuters that the company does not disclose advertising details because it considers ad campaign information to be confidential.
“Advertisers consider their ad creatives and their ad targeting strategy to be competitively sensitive and confidential,” said Rob Sherman. “In many cases, they’ll ask us, as a condition of running ads on Facebook, not to disclose those details about how they’re running campaigns on our service. From our perspective, it’s confidential information of these advertisers.”
That’s generally true for ad campaigns in general. However, the rules are different in the United States when it comes to political advertising. Last year the FEC adopted expanded rules requiring TV service providers and licensees, as well as radio stations, to share their political advertising files in a single online database.
Howard of the Sunlight Foundation says Facebook, Google, and other major platforms should have to meet the same level of disclosure.
“If we’re going to say that the political ad files for television and radio stations should be available online, I don’t see why we shouldn’t have that for the social networks too,” he said.
“It is very clear that between Facebook and Google, they have upwards of 80% of online ad share, and that brings with it great responsibility,” Howard said, adding that “political speech is increasingly hosted on these platforms.”
He said unless platforms or regulators find a way to provide meaningful disclosure of online political ads, it’s “virtually inviting autocratic governments to take advantage of [our] openness to weaken us. And it’s gonna happen again and again and again.”
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Craig Silverman is a media editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
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