During his marathon grilling on Capitol Hill last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said a lot about privacy, transparency, and how his platform was manipulated to influence Americans’ political attitudes in the run-up to the 2016 election.
In particular, Facebook has promised to do something about that last point, thanks to abundant evidence that sneaky online tactics — notably, by entities linked to the Russian government — were used to amplify divisive political views and spread disinformation in the U.S.
Facebook is enthusiastically embracing a proposal from Congress that would impose a new regulatory framework governing the political ads that appear when you scroll through your news feed. Last year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia introduced a bill, called the Honest Ads Act, to regulate online political ads the same way that political ads are regulated on print, TV, and radio — with clear disclosure requirements and a public record of ads.
That bill hasn’t even received formal committee consideration yet, but Facebook is implementing a lot of the legislation’s provisions on its own, with the goal of giving the public more knowledge about who is running and paying for political ads — along with tougher requirements for getting those ads in front of users’ eyeballs in the first place.
That all constituted a remarkable about-face for Facebook: just months ago, the tech giant was saying it had serious concerns about the legislation and waging an all-out lobbying assault to stop it. After recent revelations of how users’ personal data was manipulated by political actors, however, there is even more pressure on Silicon Valley to implement new rules governing politics on their platforms.
With another crucial election just months away, advocates are hoping new rules can be put in place — both by law and by the companies themselves — to protect the online space from opaque, misleading political communication. But there are lingering questions about how effectively these tech giants can achieve that goal — and how much of a difference, in the big picture, it would even make if they did.
Facebook clicks ‘like’ on greater transparency
On April 6, two Facebook executives, Rob Goldman and Alex Himel, outlined in a post the company’s plans to boost transparency and counter election interference.
In doing so, Facebook basically implemented the pillars of the Honest Ads Act voluntarily. The legislation, introduced last October, would require clear labeling of political content online, and require platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers — from Facebook to Yelp — to keep a publicly-accessible file of all political ads purchased by an entity that spends more than $500 on ads. The legislation also requires the platforms to “make all reasonable efforts” to make sure foreign entities aren’t purchasing political ads.
Going forward, the company said only “authorized advertisers” will be allowed to run political ads on Facebook or Instagram. To obtain that authorization, would-be political advertisers would need to confirm their identity with some kind of government-issued documentation, along with confirming their location. Consistent with federal election law, foreign entities wouldn’t be allowed to pay for and place political ads on Facebook.
These stiffer rules won’t just apply to ads for campaigns and candidates, but also so-called “issue ads” on controversial political topics. Facebook says it will approve an initial list of “key issues” to be covered by the requirement soon. In the run-up to the 2016 election, professional trolls at Russia’s Internet Research Agency exploited topics like guns, gay rights, and race relations to amplify political divisions on Facebook.
Goldman and Himel also wrote that political ads on Facebook will be clearly labeled and display “paid for by” information. The social media giant also plans to unveil in June a public, searchable archive of the ads that run on its platform, which will include not just the ads themselves but information about how much they cost and what demographics they targeted.
Beyond the professional trolling — which was outlined in an indictment of 13 Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller — a big reason for Zuckerberg’s testimony, and Facebook’s internal changes, was the example of Cambridge Analytica, the England-based digital strategy firm employed by the campaign of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The firm obtained the data of more than 50 million Facebook users in order to hit them with targeted political advertising — ads that, in 2016, carried little, if any, information about who paid for them and who else was seeing them.
“We know we were slow to pick-up foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. elections,” the Facebook brass acknowledged. “Today’s updates are designed to prevent future abuse in elections — and to help ensure you have the information that you need to assess political and issue ads.” They said Facebook users will begin to notice the changes this spring, and testing is currently ongoing.
A ‘really promising’ development
Advocates of Congress’ Honest Ads Act applauded Facebook for basically implementing the legislation themselves, and for going further on some planks of the policy.
“The fact they’re voluntarily going to disclose all political ads, including issue ads, is really a big deal,” Klobuchar told MinnPost. “Because otherwise, these things were just going into the ether.”
Political entities have used Facebook to launch targeted, “slimy” ad campaigns, Klobuchar said. “Opposing candidates didn’t know. The press couldn’t track what people were doing… This time, you’re going to see them.”
Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel at the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said he thinks it’s great that Facebook is taking this initiative, though he wishes they’d done so sooner.
“At least in terms of what they’re publicly announcing, they do seem to be ahead of the industry on transparency, and that’s really promising,” he said.
Tyler Cole, the legislative director at Issue One, a D.C. nonprofit that advocates on issues of political transparency, said Facebook’s move was an encouraging sign that Silicon Valley is beginning to take their responsibility to counter election interference seriously.
“Apparently, they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “It is fair to say that some of Facebook’s voluntary efforts would go further than the Honest Ads Act.”
For example, experts cited the amount of information that Facebook is putting in its online, searchable database — not just the text of the ad, but who paid for it, how much they paid, and who they wanted to see it — as a strong standard that puts online political ad disclosure in a more rigorous category of transparency than ads that appear on TV or on the radio.
However, most everyone paying attention to the debate argues that it remains necessary to pass the Honest Ads Act, even if giants like Facebook are talking a big game about making sweeping changes themselves.
For one, Facebook isn’t the entire internet, even if it wants to be. Other platforms, such as Google, will remain vulnerable to election interference if their transparency and authenticating standards remain opaque. Though it’s possible Facebook’s move could prompt others to adopt standards, a single bill passed out of Congress that applies to the whole industry is seen as the best solution by far.
There’s also some skepticism that the tech industry will implement and sustain higher standards on political ads when the current levels of scrutiny die down, and public outrage subsides.
“I do think they’re responding to public pressure,” Vandewalker says. “There’s reason to suspect that if the public pressure goes away, they won’t really stay on the ball, which is why I think we still need legislation.”
He brought up the example of Twitter, which promised in October 2017 to launch a “transparency center” on its platform, in hopes of countering election interference. Though Twitter said then that the center would be rolled out in the “coming weeks,” it wasn’t, and it has yet to be launched. (Twitter has endorsed the Honest Ads Act, however.)
Beyond telling Klobuchar that “his team” would work with lawmakers on passing the bill, Zuckerberg wrote in a post that “Election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform, and that’s why we support the Honest Ads Act… This will help raise the bar for all political advertising online.”
Klobuchar says she trusts Facebook to implement these measures — mostly because their CEO said he would in a widely-watched hearing. “It wasn’t some lobbyist that made the promise,” she said. “It was their CEO… Would we prefer to pass the law? Of course. It’s not sustainable that you have different companies making their own promises.”
“In the absence of law,” she says “we have voluntary actions.”
The need for regulations
That Facebook and Twitter are publicly supporting the Honest Ads Act at all — much less implementing their own standards — is a pretty significant turn-around.
It was only late March when, as Quartz reported, Facebook was waging an intense Capitol Hill battle to stifle the Honest Ads Act, spending millions of dollars to ward off the attempts to regulate their industry.
The Cambridge Analytica revelations, among other things, made it publicly untenable for Facebook to maintain their tough opposition to new transparency standards, experts say. That the 2018 elections are now just eight months away is another pressure point: the U.S. intelligence community is certain that foreign entities, particularly in Russia, will attempt to undermine U.S. elections again.
In a hearing before lawmakers in February, Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said that he expects not only that Russia will continue efforts to influence U.S. elections in 2018, but that their tactics will be bolder than they were last time around. “Frankly,” he told senators, “the United States is under attack.”
Travis Ridout, a Washington State University professor who studies political advertising for the Wesleyan Media Project, says the political moment right now is strongly in favor of fuller disclosure of political advertising. “What the companies are saying is, hey, we’re open to regulation,” he says. “I’m not sure they really want regulation.”
Issue One’s Cole says “I am taking [Facebook] at their word, at this point, that they are serious about implementing a better disclosure and transparency regime… They could have gone the other way. They wouldn’t have been the first company.”
He added that Facebook’s rigorous efforts to put a transparency regime in place counter past arguments from the industry that doing so would be unworkable. “I don’t have any doubt that Facebook has capacity to do it,” he said. “Now we’re seeing whether they have the will to do it.”
Though advocates see the events of the past few weeks as largely positive signs, there remain broader questions about how far these steps will go toward stifling interference in U.S. elections.
There is the issue of how these new standards are enforced, and how easily they can be circumvented by a determined group. NYU’s Vandewalker says, for example, that Facebook currently has a policy against incitement of terror, but violations can frequently go unaddressed for long periods of time. “There’s always questions about implementation,” he says.
The effectiveness of moves like Facebook’s also depend on how the public uses tools like the ads database that Facebook intends to make public, Ridout says.
“Facebook can have all this information available to people, but if journalists aren’t following up on it, it’s sort of meaningless,” he says. “Will it discourage bad actors? Maybe. Or maybe those bad actors will go to other platforms that aren’t providing the traceability that Facebook might be providing at this point.”
The Honest Ads Act would at least set a industry-wide standard on transparency, so advocates are hoping it could move this year. Klobuchar’s Senate bill has 23 cosponsors — 22 Democrats and one Republican — while a House version has 18 sponsors, 10 Republicans and eight Democrats. No formal consideration of the bill, called a markup, has taken place yet.
Backers of the Honest Ads Act have always cautioned that the legislation is intended as the start, not the capstone, of congressional efforts to counter election interference. It does not do anything about the proliferation of so-called “fake news,” for example, which played a huge role in foreign disinformation campaigns.
But something is better than nothing, according to Vandewalker. “There will always be people willing to break the law” he says. “Right now, the government has not improved any defenses since 2016… I do think we need to put up whatever defenses we can.”