In the wake of waves of criticism, Facebook continues to institute more changes to its platform — including new stringent rules for those placing issue-based ads — in an effort to thwart future election interference.
Advertisers who want to run political or issue ads on Facebook now must have their identity and location verified, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Friday.
“Any advertiser who doesn’t pass will be prohibited from running political or issue ads,” wrote Zuckerberg, who is scheduled to appear before Congress next week. “We will also label them and advertisers will have to show who paid for them. We’re starting this in the U.S. and expanding to the rest of the world in the coming months.”
Political and issue ads proved especially powerful in the 2016 presidential election, and there are fears of a repeat of such influence over this fall’s midterm elections.
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Last fall, Facebook told lawmakers it would tighten its ad policies after disclosing that more than 3,000 ads were bought by 470 fake accounts and pages run by the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Those ads targeted Facebook users on hot-button subjects including gun rights, gay rights, religion and presidential candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Facebook subsequently revealed that the reach of those ads and other posts exceeded what it had originally stated, impacting 146 million Americans.
The social network’s announcement Friday could allay concerns of election experts and lawmakers that ads about hot-button social issues meant to be divisive and foment voter outrage might still slip through, leaving a dangerous weak spot on the network.
“Facebook’s announcement that they will include issue ads in their forthcoming transparency tool, and has endorsed the enactment of the Honest Ads Act, is a welcome step and will add to public awareness about who is paying for advertising content on the platform,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in a statement. Schiff is the highest ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of three congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Kremlin-linked IRA, he said, “took advantage of contentious political issues to divide Americans through social media advertising – this move by Facebook will help blunt those attempts in the future.”
Facebook will work with third parties to develop a list of key issues to track, Rob Goldman, vice president of ads, and Alex Himel, vice president of local and pages, said in a separate post on the Facebook blog.
“To get authorized by Facebook, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location,” they said. “Advertisers will be prohibited from running political ads – electoral or issue-based – until they are authorized.
These steps would seem to satisfy requirements lawmakers had sought from the social network in the bipartisan Honest Ads Act.
“Most of the paid ads the Internet Research Agency ran on Facebook prior to the 2016 election didn’t mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — but they did mention divisive political issues like guns, LGBT rights, immigration, and racial issues,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have sponsored the bill.
“That’s why today’s announcement by Facebook is so important, and I would encourage all of the platform companies to follow suit as we work toward making the Honest Ads Act the law of the land, ensuring that political ads sold online abide by the same disclosure rules as TV and radio ads,” Warner said in a statement Friday.
Those who manage large Facebook pages will face tougher scrutiny, too, for the ads they run, Zuckerberg says. Verification of those page operators “will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way,” he said.
Ads will be clearly labeled with “paid for by” information, later this spring, the company says. And a searchable political ads archive will be available by June.
Facebook plans to hire more people and have these measures operational “in time for the critical months before the 2018 elections,” Zuckerberg said.
In recent days, Zuckerberg and Facebook have publicly attempted to face the fallout and scrutiny from a burgeoning crisis. The company on Wednesday said that up to 87 million people, mostly in the U.S., may have had their data improperly shared by political targeting firm Cambridge Analytica.
In mid-March, Facebook suspended the British firm whose staff helped then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and said it would investigate possible misuse of user data obtained via a personality app and then improperly obtained and retained by Cambridge Analytica.
The New York Times and U.K.’s Observer has reported that Cambridge Analytica had kept personal information of 50 million Facebook users without their permission, 30 million of them with enough details to match users to other records and build profiles of them.
Cambridge Analytica has said the data was destroyed and was not used in the 2016 White House race.
Also this week, Facebook said it had removed 135 Facebook and Instagram accounts and 138 Facebook pages that had been controlled by the Internet Research Agency.
That Russian-based troll farm was among three businesses and 13 individuals charged with conspiracy and other crimes in an indictment issued in February by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Those most recent accounts were in Russian and mainly targeted Russians. But the 470 Russian accounts previously kicked off Facebook had pushed Russian propaganda that reached 150 million Americans.
Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have increased their visibility. Sandberg did several interviews later in the week and appeared on Today Friday morning.
Zuckerberg on Thursday took questions from reporters during an hour-long teleconference.About the issues of privacy and manipulation on the service, he said, “I wish that I could snap fingers and in three months or six months have solved all these issues. But I just think the reality is, given how complex Facebook is and how many systems there are and how we need to rethink our relationship with people and our responsibility across every single part of what we do, I do think this is a multi-year effort.”